Communication Makes All the Difference When Dealing with Difficult Residents

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
“Communication concepts are universal,” explains Timothy O’Connor, an executive director at FirstService Residential in Virginia with 13 years’ experience in property management. “It’s important to balance resident wants and needs with how much information and what kind of information you release. There are residents who will flatter and cajole information out of you, appearing innocent, but they are looking for weapons to use later. One example we see is potential buyers who want more information than what we are required by statute to disclose. If you begin the relationship by giving more than you need to, the demands will only increase.”
 
Of course, there is a benefit to being transparent as a community association board. Boards should share their vision with residents, but sometimes oversharing can come back to haunt you. O’Connor cites spending on attorney’s fees as an example: some residents will try to create their own story about association business by looking at nothing more than invoices and expenditures. This is why it’s important that the board be cohesive when it comes to what information should be shared.
 
“A lack of information creates a vacuum that allows people to draw – and share – their own conclusions,” O’Connor says. “Often, that story becomes ‘This is what I asked, and I didn’t get an answer, so what I already think must be true.’”
 
Negative bias is a factor in this, O’Connor asserts. “It’s a worldview and it’s hard to combat, but the amount of negative bias any individual has will contribute to how often they are willing to repeat and reinforce the drama they’ve made up. It’s always a more captivating story than ‘We got the streets paved and the trash picked up.’ Arming the rest of the community with facts and being transparent can keep those people from influencing the rest of the community.”
 
How can you make sure the community gets the real story about what’s going on in your association? Communities in O’Connor’s domain use the proprietary FirstService Residential Connect software to communicate with residents. Using Connect to communicate regularly with residents changes the relationships between both the board and residents and management and residents. The mass communication tools allow boards and management to communicate regularly and efficiently with residents about everything from scheduled maintenance to upcoming events and even emergencies. When residents are provided accurate information on a regular basis, those difficult residents have a harder time spreading their stories. “I work with one manager who does a great job reminding the community of board accomplishments,” O’Connor says. “It’s not bragging or a pat on the back – just a matter of fact accounting of ‘This is what’s been accomplished this quarter.’ Everyone knows what is going on.”
 
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, O’Connor explained. Do not attempt to embarrass or degrade this person; they are on a mission and want to be taken seriously. Give them an audience with the association board in a structured, closed door environment. Ask them to present their issues, why there 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. O’Connor 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. You can acknowledge someone’s points without conceding anything to them.
 
“Follow your best practices, follow your documents,” O’Connor advises. “Many difficult residents will wait for you to trip up in your wording and use it against you.”
 
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.

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.
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