Joan finally got home at 10 pm after an especially unpleasant HOA board meeting. She had a headache and had to get up early the next day for work, but she was too upset to go straight to bed. Even after four long hours, the board was not able to agree about how to handle some long deferred maintenance issues. It was clear that the roof of the club house needed to be fixed before the next rains, but two of the board members refused to approve the expenditure, arguing that the clubhouse was only used by children and teenagers who tended to monopolize the game room and were often noisy and rude to the older folks. One of the dissenting members, a long time owner and board member, said “Why should we all have to pay for something that only a few get to enjoy. We should charge them to use the common room and use that money to repair the roof.” Others, including the representative from the management company tried to reason that such an approach was not practical and might not even be legal, but the opponents were angry and not about to give in. It was a long, frustrating meeting, with no progress.
Everyone who has ever served on the board of directors of their homeowners association is well aware that conflict is a common part of the experience. Whether the question has to do with fees, special assessments, maintenance, parking or homeowners who refuse to comply with association rules, people disagree with each other, often loudly or unpleasantly. Things really break down when one party or both feel disrespected or threatened.
If this kind of conflict is not resolved, the cost to the association is high. All of the time and energy spent fighting these battles is time and energy not available for effectively managing the association. Real issues remain unresolved and morale suffers as problems escalate. People are distracted by unresolved disputes and if the problems continue, associations can incur legal fees as they try to resolve conflicts through the courts. And very worst case scenarios can sometimes end in violence.
Let’s take a look at how this conflict could be resolved by trying a different approach. It’s safe to assume that both sides feel strongly about their position and by now, many of the homeowners have taken sides in the conflict. A tried and true process for resolving such conflicts involves four steps:
✦ First, each party needs to hear and acknowledge the other side’s point of view. This is hard because we usually put all of our energy into making our own argument as strong as possible — and when the other person is talking, we are focused on why they are wrong and how we will present our case more forcefully. During this phase it’s common to characterize the other party in a very negative manner: Those families with kids are rude, undisciplined people who don’t care about how their behavior affects me! Or, those old folks are so fussy and controlling, they have no right to run this place like some kind of retirement home.
✦ Step two involves identifying and stating the problem as separate from the people. For example, the problem is that currently board meetings are not effective for making operating decisions about the HOA. Board members are not able to fulfill their duties because communications have broken down. The roof in the community room still needs to be fixed.
✦ Step three is simply listing options for resolving the problem, such as setting time limits for the meetings, granting one or two members decision making authority within certain limits, do nothing and hope it gets better with the passage of time.
✦ Step four is where the parties agree on a specific solution. The more details are spelled out, the better your chance of success. For example, the board may decide that two members will comprise a maintenance committee and take care of decisions such as repairing the roof. They will have a budget and a timeline for reporting to the full board which projects are being done.
Finally, if the board cannot move past their combativeness, it often makes sense to bring in a third party, neutral facilitator to help the board work through the steps outlined above. A smoothly functioning board is necessary to protect the property and ensure that decisions are made in a timely and sensible manner. For most people, their home is their largest and most important investment, as well as being their residence. In order to protect the value of that investment it makes sense to spend some time and energy making sure that the folks you elect to the board have the tools needed to operate efficiently and effectively. Sometimes, spending some time with a trained facilitator or mediator can vastly improve the effectiveness of the board and reduce everyone’s frustration.