Simple things first.
Unresolved conflict festers and carries over into other issues. Resolve it when it happens or face it again next month with some other non-related issue. It only gets tougher to deal with as it ages.
Recognize when there is a conflict and address it. Too often the biggest problem is that everybody has their dander up and nobody wants to do anything except be heard. Normally it would be said that it is the president’s responsibility to keep order and decorum. What if the president is the one embroiled in the conflict? Then it becomes the responsibility of each individual board member to use maturity and rational thinking to first defuse the emotional situation and then help recognize that a conflict exists that requires resolution. Recognizing that there is a problem first and then identifying the problem may be about as much as these pages can offer today. If so, it’s enough.
Keep in mind that it’s not always necessary to announce that there’s a conflict. It’s not a bad idea, but sometimes it just fans the flames. Use your conflict defusing techniques with or without the announcement.
The problems themselves come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more frequent than others, but David Letterman’s List of Top Ten Community Association Management Problems might make for a good column next month. Today let’s deal with style and motivation. Leave substance for tomorrow once we understand the basics.
An essential ingredient of conflict is frustration. Frustration stems most often from a person feeling that their point of view is not being heard or not being seriously considered. A first step in returning order to the board room is to identify that frustrated person, usually easy enough, and ask them to state their opinion as succinctly as they can. The first problem is that emotional people tend to be less than succinct. Many intelligent people with good ideas just don’t have the mental dexterity to organize their thoughts in a logical easy to understand way. It doesn’t mean their thoughts are worth any less. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid people. It just means they’re not great orators. Some people just can’t dance. My mother-in-law can’t cook. We all have strengths and just a few weaknesses. Help the poor communicator by being a good listener. It’s for everybody’s benefit. It is your responsibility as a board member to have the patience to dig out the best of what is available. If an emotional person is having difficulty getting a thought out coherently, try to listen patiently and ask the right questions in a non-threatening way. Elicit the information you need to understand the point of view. There is a basic rule that we should all take to the bank. “We are each capable of positive and productive thought. If it sounds dumb or irrational, work at it until you see the logic.” You may not agree with the position. It may be self-serving, vindictive, emotional, uninformed or downright dumb because the person has not taken the time to think it through. You don’t have to agree. You do have to understand.
Once you understand you have a second major challenge. It could be the most difficult. If you disagree with the position, you must agree with the person’s right to their thoughts and affirm the value of their contribution. Why in the world would you want to affirm a vindictive stupid self-serving contribution? Because it is essential to clearing the emotional obstruction to doing the business of the board. In the first place, your feeling that the thought may not be of great value is only your position. Others at the table may have a slightly different view. Even if you’re all rolling your collective eyeballs at the absurdity of the position you still must affirm the person’s right to their thoughts and the right to express them without derision. Argument, yes. Derision, no. The stupider the thought, the more likely somebody is going to respond in an insulting way and the more likely the originator will feel frustrated and escalate the dispute.
Listen to a position, understand it, affirm that you have understood it by asking non-threatening questions that demonstrate your candid interest in the position. Thank the person sincerely for offering their thoughts and move on to another person’s position. Once the source of the conflict has been satisfied that they have been heard, understood and respected, they must then show the same respect to the others at the table. If not, throw the bastard out.