For those of you who were not able to attend the CAI National Meeting in San Diego this April, I’d like to share with you some thoughts from a presentation that I did on working with difficult people. We all have those folks in our communities who are hard to get along with and sometimes it barely seems worth it to try to interact with them productively. One of the ideas that I presented is that it’s important to go into conversations with a clear, realistic goal in mind. For example, if you are discussing a maintenance issue, your goal might be for them to agree to a certain timeframe for accomplishing their tasks. Or if it’s a financial issue, you may wish that they would simply bring their account current immediately, however that may not be possible. A more achievable goal might be to work on a payment schedule that they can actually manage. Be prepared to listen carefully to their concerns. Remember, listening and making sure that they know they’ve been heard is not the same as agreeing.
Take a look at the following road map for more productive conversations with the most difficult folks. I call it a “Conversation with a PURPOSE” and it goes like this:
Privacy: Don’t try to confront a difficult situation when you have an audience. Privacy allows people to be more flexible in their positions and permits them to make concessions without losing face.
Understanding: Make sure that you fully understand the other person’s point of view before you present your complaint or request. Without exception, every mediation that I’ve conducted one or more of the participants has complained that their point of view was never heard or understood. Listening accomplishes two very important objectives. First, you almost always learn new information about the situation. Also, when you take the time to truly listen to their concerns, it makes them much more likely to be flexible in coming up with workable solutions.
Reactions: Take a moment to pause and look at your own reactions. You want to take a deep breath and manage your own emotional response to the situation. For example, you may be irritated or even angry, however, it’s important not to allow your emotions to derail the conversation. Revisit your goal: If your goal is to have them agree to a workable payment plan, your irritation or anger won’t get you any closer to that outcome.
Perspective: This is the time to clearly spell out your perspective on the situation. It is the time to be empathetic, but factual. Don’t debate the information that they’ve provided, rather offer factual information and explain your goal. A sample word track might go something like this: “I understand that it’s been a difficult time for you and I really appreciate you taking the time to explain it to me. My goal here is to see if we can come up with a plan that will bring you current within the next 90 days (or six months or whatever time frame the board has agreed to.)” Also, this is the time to explain that the association relies on these funds to pay for services such as maintenance, insurance and other expenses that must be paid on an on-going basis. The board has the legal responsibility to collect dues and assessment from all homeowners and manage the finances so that everyone’s property values are maintained. Uncollected dues can have a negative impact on the entire community.
Outcomes: It is also important to spell out any consequences such as collection efforts, legal action or lose of privileges that will occur.
Solutions: Steer the conversation toward solutions that both sides can live with. You may need to offer some concessions in order to negotiate a workable agreement. It is always a good idea to put the agreement in written form shortly after the meeting. A short e-mail or note outlining what was agreed to helps everyone remember and comply the terms.
Exit: These should be fairly short conversations. If you can keep the discussion to 15 or 20 minutes, it will be less stressful and easier on you and everyone else.