Resident Conflict: How to Handle Difficult Situations Like a Pro
Managing a community can be stressful, and resident conflict can add to that stress. Some have become more quick-tempered, less patient, and have shorter fuses today than ever before. This is due in part to life’s daily challenges.
As a board member, you want to handle resident issues as soon as they arise. Keep reading to learn what’s behind heightened resident irritability and ways to manage and reduce some of the tension.
Causes of resident conflict
So, what’s behind the rise in conflicts among residents, staff and board members, and when did things start to escalate?
We can name a couple of reasons.
“We noticed tensions rising among residents in the communities we manage at the height of the pandemic,” said Amy Sanchez, president of the Central Florida division at FirstService Residential. “With so many people being forced to spend most of their time at home, the boundaries between home and work had become increasingly blurred causing emotional strain.”
And as more people experience emotional strain and other stressors such as job loss or financial problems, conflicts – between residents and your property staff – are inevitable.
In addition to concerns about the pandemic itself – worry about the health of the family while dealing with daily news reports on death tolls – this lack of a work-life balance became a significant struggle for many, compounding residents' emotional pressures and creating numerous opportunities for conflict to emerge.
According to the American Psychological Association, there is a direct link between stress and aggressive behavior. Scientists have found biological evidence that stress and aggression feed off each other. When we are under stress, we are more likely to fly off the handle, and when we fly off the handle, that increases our stress level.
Residents' increased stress may also be due to financial strain. Over the past year, inflation has been a top concern for Americans who are spending more. Stress related to finances can cause people to lose their temper faster than they used to.
But whether the rise in conflicts is due to emotional or financial strain, your community association’s team will likely encounter them.
“We've experienced increasing occurrences of resident conflicts that we’ve had to navigate,” said Sanchez. In one instance, a resident hung a banner from their balcony with inappropriate language, violating the community’s appearance standards. When the association asked for the banner’s removal, the resident became agitated and took out their frustration on the office team. They hurled insults and sent emails with threats of violence. The behavior continued without reprieve, regardless of actions taken to de-escalate the situation. For their safety, the staff was asked to leave the property and work off-site until a resolution could be reached.”
The challenges that arose during this case often revolved around communication. Should the team communicate about where and why the staff are working off-site? What and how much is appropriate to share? Will this enflame the situation even more?
“In a case like this, communication is key,” said Sanchez. “While each situation is different, proactive and thoughtful messaging to the community can build trust and understanding. The reality is that most residents want to live in peace and comfort within their community and work together to preserve it.”
In other instances, we have seen residents living in older buildings impacted by structural integrity issues and modification requirements feeling angry and frustrated by newly required assessments, adding to stress around finances.
“So, even though you may have done everything possible to keep residents informed to help them prepare for the impact, they may still get angry and take their frustrations out on the staff,” said Kim Pinillos, vice president of the South Florida High-Rise division at FirstService Residential.
What steps can boards, supported by their management team, take to manage resident conflicts? Here are 5 tips you may find helpful.
Tip #1. Foster a sense of community
A sense of community can facilitate neighborly relationships and help residents strengthen social connections and build trust with each other and staff. As a result, they may be more likely to share any concerns more openly.
“Building and maintaining positive relationships within a community can have so many benefits,” said Sanchez. “It can really improve the overall quality of life and wellbeing for residents and staff. Just think about the possibilities when a board’s primary focus is to foster a sense of community and belonging. It makes you rethink how you manage violations or architectural modifications. All of a sudden, you want to be more friendly and helpful. Neighbors focus more on how they can help each other than on enforcing policy. It’s a game changer and can easily be folded into every board and management decision.”
Learn how the board at Palm Greens 2 in Delray Beach took steps to foster positivity in their community by listening to our podcast, Get on Board: The Kindness Project.
Tip #2. Be transparent
Clear written and verbal communications are essential to prevent misunderstandings. Even if the news is difficult to deliver, be forthcoming with the information residents need to know. Communicate with residents about potential changes, such as fee increases, so they do not feel caught off guard.
“Consider having a town hall meeting where your insurance broker or other third-party experts can come in and discuss what residents should expect while allowing them to ask questions,” said Pinillos. “The current economic climate has left many associations grappling with rising costs, leaving them no choice but to increase their maintenance fees or impose special assessments, so this might be a great opportunity to let your residents know what’s happening.”
Tip #3. Seek to understand
Anger can sometimes make it difficult for people to express their concerns. When a resident approaches you in an agitated state, try to determine what the real problem is. Are they upset with you because they forgot to turn the water off and their unit is flooded, or are they worried about the cost of the repairs? Is the resident just expressing an opinion, or are they frustrated that maintenance fees were raised again? There is often more to a resident's concern or complaint about the color of flowers in the lobby or the design of the rug in the entryway than you think. Try to identify the root cause of their concern.
“Conflict resolution techniques may be helpful in clarifying the underlying cause of a resident’s frustration,” said Pinillos. Your professional management company can advise on how to manage disputes when they arise.
Learn more about conflict resolution by watching Board Brief: Conflict Resolution for Board Members.
Tip #4. Document all incidents
When a resident conflict arises, it is imperative to document it. A written record serves as evidence and an official journal of the incident. If necessary, this journal can be used in legal proceedings. According to Mara Jockers, vice president, general counsel at FirstService Residential, include any witnesses' or third-party accounts of the incident and details such as the conflict's date, time and location. If you have any security system recordings, you should save those as well. And, of course, call the police if you ever feel physically threatened or believe you or anyone else’s life is in danger.
Tip #5. Set expectations
We know that setting and enforcing rules can be stressful, but it's crucial for maintaining a safe and secure community. Implementing policies and guidelines will help residents understand that they must meet specific standards to provide everyone with a healthy and safe environment. A good property management company will work with your board to ensure proper protocols are followed.
Handling resident conflict can be challenging for any community association board. The range of factors contributing to conflicts can be diverse and complex. But it is possible to resolve them with the right approach. Contact FirstService Residential to learn more about resolving resident conflicts.