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Dealing with Difficult People

Few new strata managers walking in on their first day have the slightest inkling what is in store for them unless they have extensive customer-service experience. Without scaring everyone too much let me say in no uncertain terms that some of the people with whom you will deal will be very difficult. Why is that? Largely it is because of three things:

  • We deal in situations that affect people’s living arrangements, making even the smallest of issues seem very, very personal to the resident.
  • People find Bodies Corporate a perfect place to enact personal agendas.
  • There are no repercussions for bad behaviour.

The (90%) Quiet Majority

It is very important to keep in mind that the vast majority of residents with whom you will have interaction are pleasant folks who only want or need something taken care of: A tree trimmed, a late charge reviewed, to report a problem or ask a procedural question. These residents are dealt with quickly and without rancor because they, as people, are amenable and their issue is straightforward. The problem is presented to you and you solve it as best as is possible. You will deal with hundreds, or even thousands of these types of people but like all things easy you won’t remember much about them. You WILL remember, and be most affected by the less pleasant encounters, and those are with whom we will spend more time reviewing. Despite that, never, ever, lose sight of the legion of good people you meet and will talk to on a daily basis because they are what will give you perspective.

The (10%) Vocal Minority

In almost any Body Corporate you can be assured of dealing with the same people over and over – the 10%.  The serial complainers, chronic whiners, angry-at-the-world-ers, or the causers-of-their-own-problems.  It’s a truth, it’s undeniable, and to put it bluntly it’s our job to deal with them. So, what types of challenging people can you expect?

The bored and/or lonely.   If you manage a strata retirement community, you soon find that many of them are bored and/or lonely – and don’t know how to manage that boredom or loneliness, except to make continual contact with anyone who will listen. Many times, that will be you.

The bored gadfly.  Potentially more dangerous and time consuming than the plain old bored, the gadfly likes to stir up trouble just for their own entertainment’s sake. Not satisfied with simply complaining about an issue, they embellish upon it. For example, the gadfly will say that the pest control company didn’t come to his home this month, or the month before, or the month before. Even though you may have all the records proving otherwise, the gadfly will disregard that. He’ll attend the next Committee meeting, make the same complaint, then say that he believes the owners of the pest control company receive kick backs from the management company.  You know, and the gadfly knows, and even the Committee knows the accusation is ludicrous, but the nature of the accusation is such that the Committee will have to take some action or investigation for political reasons. The gadfly has made you all jump through hoops for his entertainment. And he’ll do it again.

Angry with a legitimate reason.  They may have been wrongly charged a late fee, or the entry gate closed early and hit their car, or every street but theirs was swept. Although, yes, they are sputtering mad when you talk with them, you can at least deal with the situation in a relatively clear cut fashion: Get the street swept, refer them to the Body Corporate insurance provider for the damage to the car, reverse the late fee.

Angry-in-general.  These are the ones you simply cannot please in any fashion, so you may as well expect very little from them except their anger. They will call, email, write, show up at a Committee meeting, or lay in wait to spring a “gotcha!” trap at the annual meeting.

The agenda-driven.  These are the folks who want something and the only way to get it (in their mind) it to continually complain.  They operate under the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease theory. “If I complain long enough about the tree blocking my view, they’ll eventually get sick of me and cut it down.”

The truly disturbed. Just like in real life, you’ll have to deal with some people that are truly disturbed. Most of them are harmless, but always be on the lookout for those whom you think may not be so harmless. Let your employer and Committee know.

Dealing with Difficult People (or, how to deal with the real heat in the kitchen)

When dealing with a problematic person, you must remain detached from the emotion of the moment by realizing that 1)Though the complainant appears to be upset with you, usually they are not: they are frustrated with the situation, 2) Know that your response can either exacerbate or diffuse the problem, and 3) Know that you can’t control the person, you can only control your reaction.

If you remember these simple truths, you will be able to stay detached. Once this is accomplished, you’ll be able to respond to the problem, and not the attitude. Let’s get started

For the most part you will encounter most of your “problem children” on the telephone. There is a very basic structure of response to that person on your part that will get you through 99% of those (often heated and angry) complaints (they work with in-person complaints as well). They are:

Listen, empathize, focus, and solve the problem

Listen and take notes. As the individual is detailing his complaint, demonstrate that you are listening by repeating portions of what you have heard: “As I understand you, Mr. Smith’s dog barked last night between the hours of 2am and 6am – is that right?” Listen and take notes only. Why? Because you will need those notes for a service order or for the file, and it keeps you from multi-tasking (see below).

Empathize. Intermittently offer reassuring words such as, “I see,” and, “I understand,” to show that you grasp their unhappiness with the situation and are listening. As long as the complainant sees you are listening and empathizing, the emotion will tend to diffuse.

Focus. Once it is established you are listening, you will be able to focus the conversation from an emotion-laden complaint to a positive course of action by you on their behalf.

Solve the problem. “I’ll be sending Mr. Smith a letter asking him to comply with our rules. If the situation continues, please contact me again and we’ll take the next step.”

A VERY BIG word to the wise! When speaking with a complaining or angry person on the phone, absolutely do NOT multi-task; i.e., don’t check emails, texts or surf the net. Listen to the person talking and give them your full attention. Not only is it rude (yes, it is), it is obvious to the person talking to you that you are not giving them your full attention, making them more frustrated or angry.  I cannot emphasize this enough: Step away from the IPhone!

More methods for dealing with the polite-challenged

Resist the urge to immediate response. As soon as someone is “in your face,” it’s human nature to want to respond instantly with your knowledge of the situation. Unfortunately, this will almost always come off as defensive; so, take a deep breath and let the person vent. Then, respond.

Guide, don’t teach. “Guiding” someone indicates that person is intelligent about what they are reporting, but maybe not about the process of getting that something resolved. “Teaching” someone indicates they are ignorant. A “teacher” mindset is a sure way to get yourself crosswise with owners or Committee members, as comes across as paternalistic and/or patronizing.

Apologize for the event, or their perception thereof.  When dealing with an angry person, it’s okay to apologize for the event. This keeps you personally out of the blame game loop, but allows you to take responsibility for handling the problem. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” does not admit guilt on your part. And it makes them feel better.

Don’t expect them to apologize for anything.  Get over it right now: They could have been the biggest jerk in the world, but chances are slim they will apologize to you, even if they were dead wrong, or especially if they were dead wrong. Apologizing will be way too embarrassing for your difficult person. Move along with your work day, and own this truth.

Dealing with a difficult group of people

Called on the carpet by a Committee?  An Annual Meeting turned in to a torches-and-pitchforks party? Whether an ambush (you had no idea this was coming) or a meeting of angry folks you knew was inevitable, here are a few tips on dealing with groups of angry people.

Big groups.  You are at a meeting of the membership and everything is going swimmingly, when all of a sudden you are blindsided by 40 people angry about – something.  Understand what is going on, and quickly prepare yourself. Take a deep breath and ready yourself for an onslaught of emotion-laden diatribe, likely based on half-truths or cherry picked incidents that will reflect poorly on you and/or the Committee.  It is NOT personal, it’s simply a tactic: the group intends to shock, awe and cow you, the Committee, and any others so they can get what they want. When it happens, remember:

  • Don’t try to talk over them. Let them get it out. You cannot justify an argument against dozens of angry people, they will out-talk you even at normal decibel levels.
  • Always be the first to listen. If someone speaks up when you are talking, stop, and let the speaker finish, take a moment, thank them for their input, then answer (if possible).
  • Speak or answer questions only to those matters about which you are confident in your knowledge. Never, ever, give opinion or an ‘off the cuff’ answer.

Small groups. It may be your committee, or a small group that has a grievance. If possible, you set the place of the meeting such as your office’s conference room. Smile, shake each of their hands, thank them for coming and sit among them at the table (try not to sit at the head, sit to right of the Committee Chairperson if possible). Listen carefully, giving them your full attention (again: leave your Blackberry at your desk), look at each person and take notes.  When the meeting is over, rise, shake hands, and again thank them for coming. This signals an openness and willingness to listen and help them solve their problems.

An executive told me that once he was called on the carpet by a Committee for something one of his managers failed to do. It was a fairly big deal – and this was his largest client.  The executive walked in to the meeting holding a simple pad and paper. They asked him if he had an agenda for the meeting, he said, no, I am here ready to listen, not conduct. The group was immediately disarmed – and although portions of the meeting were unpleasant, that Committee was turned around in an hour because he demonstrated he cared.

Body language

In dealing with any group (or individuals for that matter) angry or not, your body language is very important.   Always:

  • Dress professionally
  • Give them your full attention
  • Maintain an open and assured body position of shoulders back,  head up (sitting or standing)
  • Have an attentive facial expression
  • Smile when appropriate
  • Make eye contact 80-90% of the time, looking down and away only when natural and not as an escape from the moment.[1]
  • Thank them for their input and shake hands were possible

Know when emotion-laden conversations turn in to personal abuse

One of the main reasons strata managers become stressed is because they don’t know how to distinguish between standard complaining owners and those who are abusing them. Better put, they don’t know where to draw the line. Here’s where: When it becomes strictly personal against you – name calling, cursing, and yelling about either the situation or you. There is no reason to be abused, and here is how to deal with it:

Abuse over the phone. First, put the person on speaker phone, and, if possible, bring in a witness. Many times this will shut down the abuser right away. If not, politely tell the complainant that you will be hanging up the phone and to please call you back when they have calmed down. Make sure they hear you. If they can’t hear you, and you have said it three or more times, hang up. Write a memo about the incident and make sure it is brought to the attention of the Committee and your employer by memo.

Abuse via email. Have a standard response that you can cut and paste into your email. For example: “This email constitutes abuse as defined by the XYZ Body Corporate and/or the ABC Management Company. It has been forwarded to our Human Resources Department and/or the Committee for review and retention. Please be advised that, should another email be received from you that constitutes abuse, your email address will be blocked from our server.”

Abuse in-person. The truth is most managers will not be abused in person because those who like to engage in that type of behaviour are much braver over the phone or via email; however, it does happen, and mostly to on-site managers. That said: Stand up from your chair and ask them to leave. If they do not, pick up the phone, and contact a) security if you have it, b) an executive if you are in a management firm, or c) the police if you believe you are in imminent danger.

Any time abuse happens to you, make sure to document it and keep a file for your Committee and/or executive.

Dealing with Difficult People

For all strata managers, the most daunting aspect of the job has nothing to do with the tasks that must be performed; it’s dealing with the people. I address this as a specific issue as I believe in being forewarned  and forearmed with the appropriate tools. These tools will not only make your job easier, but will make you more effective in managing your communities and the people therein.

[1] There are legion articles and books on body language. If you are unfamiliar with this concept or need some help, avail yourself of the experts online or in book stores. It will also help you understand the unsaid nuance in Committee meetings.

This article was contributed by Julie Adamen, President of ADAMEN INC. 

Leave a Reply

  1. Sandra

    As part of the much maligned 10%, I defend my right to express my views on all matters relevant to the Body Corporate in which I am a stake holder and in which I have invested my hard-earned money with the goal of protecting my investment. Having acquired a significant knowledge of Body Corporate Legislation via personal experience, including 2 terms as a committee member, (one as secretary), attendance at committee, general and BCCM and industry meetings and submitting to Property Reviews, I challenge your assessment of owners and your separation of owners into convenient categories. Owners are, after all, individuals and I find your grouping of stakeholders to be offensive. If my educated views and real concerns cause a paid contractor of the Body Corporate discomfort and inconvenience as part of their “service” as provided under their contractual arrangements then for that I can offer no apology.
    The most important characteristic of any Body Corporate Manager is people skills. (This skill is necessary in any field of employment which deals with a diversity of people.)
    In addition, a person seeking to enter this industry needs to:
    • Have (or acquire quickly) an appreciation of the legislation and codes of conduct.
    • Understand that they serve equally all members of the Body Corporate.
    • Realize that they may be dealing with an inadequate committee totally lacking BC knowledge and possibly recruited by a caretaker promoting their election via the letting pool.
    • Realize that a caretaker/letting agent might endeavour to interpret legislation, financial issues etc. for his/her own benefit.
    • Have the skill to prepare agendas and accurate, non-biased minutes to a standard of sentence construction and presentation that reflects an adequate education. (Assisted by a secretary if that person is capable.)
    • Understand and follow the time lines as per the legislation.
    • Read the minutes, and it they state you will provide letters, memos or additional information, do it.
    • Present accurate financial details prior to every committee meeting and have a good appreciation of financial information. (Assisted by the treasurer if that person is capable.)
    If a Body Corporate Manager lacks knowledge in the above areas, of fails to carry out the above tasks, accept the criticism.
    While not wishing to put Body Corporate Managers into categories, I have over the past 16 years dealt with individual Body Corporate Managers who had zero people skills, were rude and incredibly arrogant, had absolutely no knowledge of the legislation, supplied minutes etc. outside of the required timelines and one, in particular, who openly and indisputably lied to owners including at an AGM and repeatedly acted only in the interests of the caretaker and a very select few.
    While the 90% of owners who remain silent on serious issues allow the actions of a Body Corporate Manager, caretaker or committee to go unchallenged and make for a peaceful existence, owner apathy is one of the most outstanding concerns in the industry. The silent majority whom you applaud are not even prepared to exercise their right to vote in a responsible manner. The current Property Review is an outstanding reminder of this. The conditions needed for a quorum at any general meeting are extremely lenient with voters “being present” by personal attendance, proxy or written voting paper. Currently 2 only voters are required to be physically present. The property review has proposed this be reduced to zero owners and with only the Body Corporate Manager needing to be present and that a general meeting be allowed to proceed with no quorum after 30 minutes. These recommendations are obviously being suggested in line with the lack of interest and involvement in many buildings. The silent minority need a very strong wake-up call. The less personal involvement that owners have in a building, the wider the door opens for lack of accountability, corruption, fraud, ineffective use of owner money and misappropriation of funds. By the time the problems are identified, the damage is done.
    Thank heavens for being in a building with a proactive, involved, educated 10%.

  2. Anne Morrissey

    I am one of the vocal 10% & I have been verbally abused by a committee member for being a “keyboard warrior”.
    The main reason for most unit complex woes seems to always go back to the 10/25 year caretaker/letting manager
    Here is Qld we are the only State with legislation that has 10/25 year caretaker contracts + provision for 5 year too ups thus removing consumer rights from unit owners.
    The caretaker/letting manager actually rules the scheme by actively having savvy owners who realise the bind they are in made to look stupid or worse incompetent trouble makers.
    Be aware if you intend to buy into a scheme in Qld with a 10/25 +letting contract that you should run away as fast as you can.

  3. Brad

    Offensive and Problematic Aspects:

    1. Labeling and Stereotyping: The categorization of residents into groups like “the bored and/or lonely” or “the truly disturbed” can be seen as reductive and disrespectful. Such labels not only stigmatize certain behaviours but also fail to acknowledge the complex circumstances that might lead to these behaviours.

    2. Lack of Empathy: Describing individuals who frequently contact strata management due to loneliness or concern as “problem children” or implying that their actions are merely for attention or entertainment lacks empathy and understanding. It undermines the genuine concerns and needs of residents, treating them as nuisances rather than people with legitimate issues.

    3. Dismissive of Legitimate Concerns: The advice suggests that strata managers should essentially brace themselves for dealing with what it terms as difficult people, implying a need to endure rather than engage with residents’ concerns sincerely. This approach could lead to a management culture that prioritizes expediency over genuinely solving problems and building a positive community.

    4. Encouragement of Detachment: While staying calm and detached in the face of heated complaints is practical advice, the emphasis on detachment can be interpreted as encouraging strata managers to emotionally disengage from the concerns of residents, potentially leading to a lack of genuine care in handling issues.

    5. Potential for Escalation Rather Than Resolution: Some strategies suggested, such as telling a complaining or angry person over the phone to call back when they have calmed down, while intended to de-escalate, could potentially exacerbate the situation by making the resident feel dismissed or not taken seriously.

    Other Findings:

    • Underestimates the Importance of Community Engagement: The article focuses heavily on managing difficult interactions without equal emphasis on proactive strategies for building a positive community atmosphere that could prevent many issues from arising in the first place.

    • Lacks Focus on Professional Development: While dealing with challenging personalities is part of a strata manager’s role, the article could have benefited from encouraging strata managers to seek training in conflict resolution, negotiation, and effective communication skills.

    • Missed Opportunity for Positive Engagement: The article misses the opportunity to advise strata managers on creating more inclusive and engaging community practices that address the root causes of complaints, such as enhancing communication channels, organizing community-building events, and fostering an environment where residents feel heard and valued.

    The article in its approach can be seen as offensive due to its labeling, lack of empathy, and potentially dismissive attitude towards residents’ concerns. A more balanced approach that emphasizes empathy, professional development, and proactive community engagement could provide a more constructive and respectful strategy for managing complex interactions within a body corporate.

    Can’t believe this company has put this out there.

  4. DC

    I’m one of the 10% , still regarded by all other owners as a very difficult person. Fortunately NCAT did not agree, costs ordered in my favour and repairs completed. A bit difficult when you say hi to the committee in the lift , who cares , I’m pleased I stood up to the bullies.