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Conflict Mitigation: When Someone Crosses the Legal Line

12/01/2023 4:56 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By David Graf, Moeller Graf

Community association leaders—boards and professional managers-- were never given the memo that their job descriptions changed. Historically, much of the time invested in managing a community was directed towards fiscal management, fund handling, planning for and replacing infrastructure, and performing ongoing maintenance.

Leading up to the pandemic and beyond, political divisiveness, social justice movements, renewed focus on the rights of the individual, and other human factors have shaped community association leadership towards a more human-centric role: governance policies, open meeting design, frequent and much more proactive information delivery, and handling interpersonal conflict. 

Many difficult owners with whom community association leaders interact with are in a category that I refer to as “Situationally Difficult,” meaning a person who has a situation that needs to be addressed before they will go back to being an otherwise-productive member of the community. This is not a value judgment on the merits of their situation but is, instead, a recognition that there is a situation in the first place, as opposed to just a difficult human. This allows us to focus our efforts on addressing the situation instead of labeling, castigating, or isolating the individual.

A very vocal and increasing percentage of the difficult owners with whom community association leaders interact with are in a category that I refer to as “Currently Unrepairable,” which means that their issue goes beyond our ability to deliver a result that would end the conflict. Most of the Currently Unrepairable owners that I deal with thrive on the conflict; seeking solutions that would eliminate the conflict is like searching all over your house for your car keys when they were in your pants pocket to begin with. Some of these difficult owners will someday realize that the solution to their problem lies with them and will not be found through any number of contentious battles with their neighbors, the association, or its leadership.

The challenge for community association leaders and professional managers is to recognize the difference between these two types of difficult owners and to minimize the number of difficult owners that we erroneously categorize as “Currently Unrepairable.” The reason that this is a challenge is because in the face of hostility, it is almost impossible to tell one from the other. As our job descriptions have evolved to solving difficult people problems, it is a missed opportunity to give up on finding a solution under the mistaken belief that it won’t matter.

Here are a few ideas to consider both before and after the moment of conflict:

  1. Conduct all association business in an open session where owners are present. This minimizes conspiracy theories and builds a sense of trust.
  2. Continue to collect email addresses of owners and proactively push out information even if you believe that owners don’t care. 
  3. Recognize that limited owner participation (negatively referred to as apathy) is not a sound justification to stop being proactive in the communication. 
  4. Understand that owners’ concerns are very personal to them. Community association leaders understandably focus on the facts of an issue whereas owners often do not have that same context and are primarily focused on what they want and how it affects them. 
  5. Let go of judgment that owners could have and should have been more prepared in doing their research before arriving to the dispute. 
  6. Remember the “steward leadership” mentality which is that while we do want to make every effort to resolve the dispute, we must be responsible stewards of the governing documents for all of the other owners who rely on them. 
  7. Recognize that the temperature of the community is not accurately taken by a few very vocal and unhappy people showing up at a meeting. 
  8. Be aware that verbally acknowledging the importance of the issue to the owner, even if you completely oppose the situation, is healing. Often this is the difference between keeping someone Situationally Difficult from becoming Unrepairable.
  9. Take appropriate legal action when the situation is untenable. 
  10. Understand that there is a very small but real possibility that a verbal dispute can become violent. There is no association business worth someone’s life. 

Community association leaders make a large and lasting impact on the lives of the people who live in communities. It can be difficult to see this value during community strife, but that does not mean that it does not exist. What you do matters. Thank you for continuing to do it.

David Graf, Moeller & Graf, has practiced community association law exclusively since 2001. David has been admitted to the College of Community Association Lawyers (“CCAL”). In 2018 and 2020, David was elected by his CCAL peers to the CCAL Board of Governors and is the current President of CCAL. In 2015, David was named CAI’s National Educator of the Year.

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