Talking to Residents: Make a Difference Through Good Communication with Difficult People
Every community has at least one. You know who they are: the squeaky wheels, the complainers, the busybodies. Difficult residents are a fact of community life. There’s no magic wand or spell to rid the world of difficult people, but as board members, you have access to the next best thing: good communication. Communication from the board and management goes a long way toward making dissatisfied residents happy. How? Read on for how you can use communication tips, tools and technology to create a cohesive community and manage difficult residents when needed.
An Ounce of Prevention
“When people don’t have information, they write a story, and it’s always the worst case scenario,” explained Robert Teeling, senior vice president at FirstService Residential. “You can head that off by making sure that all residents are aware of important happenings in the community. We send out ‘public service announcements’ a couple of times a month with information about weather, tips to stay healthy, upcoming maintenance work, what may be going on in town, community programming and more. When residents are informed consistently and clearly, they don’t go to that worst case.”
Teeling said that the communities he oversees use the proprietary FirstService Residential Connect software to communicate with residents. It’s how they send out those PSAs, using Connect’s mass communication tools. Teeling believes that using Connect to communicate regularly with residents changes the relationships between both the board and residents and management and residents. “That regular communication humanizes both the management and the board in the eyes of the community,” he said. “It helps build a real sense of community, a cohesiveness. No communication will lead to no sense of community.”
The management goes a step further, updating the board weekly with any information they need to know. Those reports may be a few lines or a lengthy message with attachments. How does this help manage difficult residents? “The worst thing for a board member is to be out in the community, encounter the ‘neighborhood nudge’ and being caught off guard by a question or complaint they can’t answer,” Teeling said. “When the board is informed and up-to-date, they are able to confidently address any issue they may be asked about. That helps keep problems from snowballing.”
A Pound of Cure
Despite your best efforts to prevent problems, they are still going to crop up from time to time. What to do? Again, communication is the answer.
Sometimes, residents who are upset or complaining simply want to be heard, Teeling explained. “Do not attempt to embarrass or degrade this person; they are on a mission and want to be taken seriously,” he said. “Give them an audience with the association board in a structured, closed door environment. Ask them to present their issues, why they are issues and what action they would like the board to take.”
Sometimes, that’s enough to soothe an unhappy resident, but don’t assume that will be the case. Teeling recommends that boards be willing to listen to unhappy residents with an open mind. They just might have a valid point! Maybe that point is a fresh way to approach an issue, something that the board hasn’t thought of yet.
After the resident has spoken to the board, make sure they know that they were heard. Summarize what they said before the meeting is over and then provide a written summary afterward. “Remember that acknowledgement is not agreement,” Teeling said. “You can acknowledge someone’s points without conceding anything to them.”
That said, try to find some point that the board can concede, if possible. Doing so will engender future goodwill, as well as letting the resident know that your board is taking them seriously. Sometimes, a small win will make someone happy enough that they don’t push the issue further. Then make sure that you explain why there can’t be any further concessions. Find as many of those answers as possible in your community’s governing documents. Don’t let the issue get emotional.
Along those lines, it is critical that your management understands what’s in the rules and regulations and what’s in the state law when they deal with an upset homeowner. People can interpret language differently or misunderstand it, especially when it’s written in legalese. Being able to explain the rules or law in plain language goes a long way toward resolving disagreements.
Sometimes, talking to the property manager just isn’t enough for the resident. In that case, it’s helpful to have a property management company that has a depth of resources to have someone high up respond to a homeowner if needed. “I’ve spoken to more than one homeowner who felt better just because a senior vice president called them back,” Teeling said. “It makes some people feel validated when their concerns are taken seriously by people higher up in the company. That can be enough to resolve the dispute.”
You will have to work with difficult or unhappy residents at some point in your tenure on your association board. Effective communication can prevent disputes (or minimize the number of them) and help resolve them when they occur. The right property management company will have the expertise, technology solutions and depth of resources to help your association manage any difficulties that arise among your residents.