Resolving Board Conflicts
By Liz Len*Sometimes being on the board of a co-op or condo is like being a politician. Fellow residents look to you to solve problems. They can vote for you, or they can choose not to vote for you if you do something they dislike. You feel like you're always in the spotlight and sometimes you feel that even your best may not be enough.
In short, it's a job with a lot of pressure—and that's why, when you put six, nine or a dozen board members in a room together, tensions may rise and conflicts may erupt. It's just the nature of the beast; different personalities, different experiences with even a little dose of stress can turn the most friendly colleagues into squabbling combatants. A warring board is a troubled board —so here are a few ideas that may help your board get through the tough times and avoid major conflicts among members.
Sometimes, simply recognizing that disagreements will occur amounts to half the battle.
"People don't always have to agree, but they do have to try to understand where people are coming from," says George Anthony of the conflict resolution consulting firm Peace Dynamics Consultants. "If people get locked into a win-lose environment, they're setting themselves up to fail."
"It helps to have a strong leader to encourage people to think outside the box," Anthony adds. People in disagreement with one another "should explore options, because oftentimes, those options are solutions. And sometimes those solutions are born out of conflict. You can look at it as an opportunity."
The ugliest fights can start out seemingly insignificant in nature.
"A lot of the time what develops into animosity [among board members] starts out as a simple policy disagreement and builds from there," says Lindy Crescitelli, also of Peace Dynamics.
Before Things Get UglyAs with any argument or conflict, taking a moment or two to really listen can go a long way toward solving the problem and helping one side understand what the other is really saying.
"Problems happen because someone states a belief that is interpreted as a position," Crescitelli says. "A position implies, 'This is where I'm at and everyone else is wrong."
Trouble also arises from simple misstatements.
"Sometimes something just isn't clear to someone," he adds. "What 'Person A' thought it was about, was not at all what 'Person B' intended. This is where third parties can help."
Let a Pro Sort it OutIf conflicts have gotten so contentious that they have impaired the ability of the board to conduct business, then it is most definitely time to bring in some outside help. Conflict resolution specialists can help individuals open up the lines of communication and work out the issues at hand. And those lines of communication should be direct between the two parties involved.
"Things that start small and should stay small can get big when people go to other people to talk about it and don't go to the people they need to be talking to," Crescitelli says. In other words, board members have to remember not to go the junior high route; talking behind someone's back or trying to work through another board member to get their message across.Specialists also can help people broach difficult subjects at the right time and in the right mental place.
"Don't try to solve anything when the situation is heated," Crescitelli says. "Once the emotion is under control, then go to the other person to talk about things." It's important in this initial conversation to think about how each word can be perceived. "People should not use accusatory language. 'You' is accusatory. Use 'I.' For example, say, 'I'm not understanding this correctly,'" rather than barking, "You're not making any sense!"
Trying to see the other side of the story is key to resolving difficulties. "We all see the world differently depending on how we were raised," Anthony says. "We're all living in the same building or environment, but we have to acknowledge that we have differences. It's an opportunity to learn from each other, especially if we can acknowledge early on that we have these different views."
Just as most buildings have lawyers or accountants on staff, it also might be wise to have the number of a good counselor on hand in the event that problems do arise. It's always better to solve things before they get ugly.
Ultimately, avoiding difficulties means building and maintaining a sound structure for communication, keeping the dialogue going, knowing one's role on a board and remembering that everyone is in this together. Each and every board member is making a sacrifice of time and effort to serve their fellow residents. It's important to remember that, as Crescitelli says, "People don't usually join boards just with the intention to make themselves or others miserable."
Basic kindness and common sense can make life easier for everyone and help things function smoothly and efficiently.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.*(re-edited slightly for space & context/link to full article below).