Anger Management Putting the Civility Back into Community

Anger Management

 For most people, “foaming at the mouth” is just a figure of speech. Attorney Ellen Hirsch de Haan, a managing partner  in the Tampa Bay, Florida office of Becker & Poliakoff PA, has encountered the real thing—and not at an animal shelter, but at a condominium owners’ meeting.  

 A former president who recently had been voted off the board began pacing  angrily between the board table and the assembled unit owners. He got so upset  he was literally frothing, Hirsch de Haan says, so she responded by “circling the wagons.”  

 “I gathered all the board members around the table, and we talked very quietly,” she explains. The man continued to rant and rave. After a few minutes, one of  the unit owners piped up and said, “Hey buddy, would you sit down and shut up? We want to hear what’s going on.” The former board member responded by leaving, slamming the door on his way out.  “The audience burst into spontaneous applause,” says Hirsch de Haan,  

 When Frasier Crane, the stuffy, TV psychiatrist played by Kelsey Grammer, ran  afoul of his condo board president, much hilarity ensued. But as condo boards  and management staff have to deal with increasing levels of anger—both in their day-to-day exchanges and scheduled meetings—it’s not exactly a laughing matter. Knowing how to defuse hostility and taking  steps to prevent it in the first place are both talents that every board should  have in its skill set.  

 Rising Tensions

 As last summer’s town hall meetings on health care demonstrated so vividly, amped-up tensions  are hardly exclusive to co-op or condo board meetings. The decline in civility  in America has been widely lamented for at least the past decade, and has been  in the works for much longer, according to P.M. Forni, a professor and  cofounder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University. In an article  that appeared last fall in the American Association of Retired Persons AARP  Bulletin Today, Forni lays the blame for much of today's pervasive rudeness and  quick tempers to post-Baby Boomers' overdeveloped sense of entitlement, but  also to the sense of detachment our reliance on electronic communication and  mass media has wrought.  

 “The Internet has depersonalized our relationships,” says Forni. “We email, instant-message and make anonymous comments online. We react quickly  and don’t censor ourselves. We live in a time when anyone can say anything about  anybody. The shrillest voices are the ones that get the most attention. We  shout our opinions because the media seems to tell us that’s the way to be heard. Pundits screaming at one another—this is part of our everyday life. We see this as normal and acceptable.”  

 Add to the cacophony a still-shuddering U.S. economy that has landed more and  more shareholder/owners in financial distress, and it becomes ever more  important for board members and property managers to develop strategies to  defuse tensions and deal effectively with stressed-out, frustrated, or angry  owners.  

 “This has been a gradually growing trend,” says Hirsch de Haan, who also writes books on community association issues and  teaches classes on handling difficult people. “When I started doing meetings, I would have one bad meeting a year. Now, I’d say if I have one good one, it’s nice. There is a very definite drop in civility.... People feel comfortable  being unspeakably rude to total strangers. You see it at the supermarket. You  see it on the road. You saw it in the town meetings on health care.”  

 And while it may not be the primary cause of rudeness, the economy has  exacerbated matters. “A lot of the tension is related to the economic cycle—a lot of people are unable to meet their monthly obligations,” said Jasmine Martirossian, PhD, an author and social psychologist at  Northeastern University in Boston. “How associations handle the situation can be a big deal. Bringing a modicum of  humanity brings a world of difference.... I don’t think anybody moves into condominium association with the express desire to be  bad. No one’s trying to be horrible board member or a horrible neighbor.”  

 Kitchen Timers

 Want a simple tool that can increase civility at your next board meeting or  annual meeting? Try a kitchen timer. Give everyone two minutes to speak, and  then move on—politely. This goes a long way toward cutting short angry soliloquies and  prevents one person from monopolizing the meeting.  

 If you know you have a contentious group or a controversial topic to address, it  may be wise to simply not give the audience a microphone. That doesn't mean  depriving them of a voice—you can have them write down their questions or concerns, then have a board  member repeat them to the assemblage. Regardless of your approach, the experts  advise keeping the tone of meetings as formal and polite as possible, and  running them in strict accordance with Robert's Rules of Order.  

 If you aren't comfortable running a formal meeting, you might even consider  bringing in a professional to assist you. Most larger cities have  parliamentarian organizations that can offer help.  

 But above all, says Hirsch de Haan, board members must not allow themselves to  be drawn into an angry confrontation—no matter how tempting. If you refuse to react to someone's bad behavior, it’s much easier to defuse a tense situation. “If somebody’s yelling and you speak quietly, it tends to calm them down,” she says.  

 Whatever you do, make sure business carries on as usual. “What you don’t want to do is adjourn the meeting,” says Hirsch de Haan. By doing so, “you have rewarded their bad behavior. They’ve won—and they'll do it again. Plus, you don't get your business done, and that's what  you're there for to begin with.”  

 Some boards dealing with long-running, especially divisive issues have even gone  so far as to hire outside security for meetings they feel may become explosive—though the practice is extremely rare. “If you’ve got an extreme situation, you can hire an off-duty police officer or sheriff’s deputy,” advises Hirsch de Haan, who says that up to two years ago, she’d had to hire security just three times in 25 years. “Last year, I had a sheriff’s deputy at five meetings,” she says, “and one time, he actually had to intervene.”  

 The Winter of our Discontent

 Part of the problem, says Martirossian, is that people don’t necessarily have a background in governance when they’re elected to a condo board. So, they may lack the necessary communication  skills. For example, springing a special assessment on owners without carefully  laying out the reasons over time is a surefire recipe for discontent—especially in an economy where the jobless rate is above 10 percent.  Martirossian also doesn’t believe in following the rules robotically—instead, she advocates making sure that individuals are treated with empathy. “Empathy” doesn't equal sending your building or condominium association into bankruptcy,  however. “It’s a balancing act,” she says.  

 Alternative Dispute Resolution

 In some instances where an argument or issue carries on after the meeting is  over with, a board might consider employing Alternative Dispute Resolution  (ADR), to settle the issue through third-party mediation or arbitration.  

 According to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, ADR is “a voluntary approach to settling disputes instead of going to court. A neutral  person—a trained mediator—facilitates negotiations between participants in reaching a mutually acceptable  resolution to their dispute.”  

 The New York City Bar has even established the “Co-op and Condo Mediation Project,” a program designed to help shareholders, managing agents, boards of directors,  and others settle residential disputes without drag-down fights or drawn-out  court hearings. The service is available in situations where all parties to a  dispute are prepared to seek mediation. Industry sources say that on average,  ADR services are around 75 percent cheaper than court costs, and mediation  sessions can be arranged in a matter of days or weeks, rather than the years it  can take a court date, much less a judgment.  

 “Although the program is not designed or intended to resolve all such disputes,  it is ideal for what are essentially quality of life disputes that, for lack of  a quick resolution, too often escalate into lengthy and contentious litigation,” according to bar association member Michael T. Manzi, who is with the Manhattan  law firm of Balber Pickard Maldonado & Van Der Tuin, PC.  

 The Co-op and Condo Mediation Project is a joint effort by two New York City Bar  committees—the Cooperative and Condominium Law Committee and the Alternative Dispute  Resolution Committee. “Neighbors may find themselves involved in conflict over any number of concerns,  including the need for quiet or the use of common space,” said Dan Weitz, chair of the association’s ADR committee. “This special program offers neighbors (and the boards they often ask to  intervene) a fast, inexpensive and confidential process through which to  achieve durable solutions to their conflict.”  

 If the problem involves personality rather than legal conflicts, the  professionals say that a board may have to handle it themselves. For example,  if owners are routinely belligerent to property management staff, it may be  time to reduce office hours. If inboxes are being filled with angry e-mails,  create an association e-mail and require that all communication be routed there  to be considered official. That can also cut down on abusive phone calls to  staff.  

 Patience is a Virtue

 Patience can also be key in restoring harmony. “One time, I mediated a conflict out in California where the original parties had  moved out of the association, but the conflict had outlived them,” says Martirossian. “The people there didn’t really know how it got started. But when you bought into the condominium, you  immediately had to take sides. By the time I came to the conflict, it had been  brewing for seven years.”  

 Relations had become so strained that every member of board had been arrested at  least once: One faction would host meetings—which were supposed to be open to all owners—in their home. Members of the other faction would try to attend, and the host  would call the police and have them arrested for trespassing.  

 It took 18 months of “slow work” to resolve the situation. “Everything was a conflict,” Martirossian continues. For example, a sauna needed repair. A former board  member, a mechanical engineer, thought he could fix it and save the association  $5,000. The current board opposed the idea, and it led to “a meltdown.”  

 She resolved the situation by suggesting a bet: The engineer offered to take the  board president out to a fancy restaurant if he couldn't fix the sauna. The  president replied, 'Go for it.' It was an unorthodox approach … but it moved them a long way” toward repairing the relationship, says Martirossian. (As it turned out, he was  able to repair the sauna.)  

 The issue of dealing constructively with anger and frustration comes down to  more than just getting through your annual building meeting without coming to  blows, says Forni. “If we cannot be civil, our quality of life deteriorates, society itself begins  to fray and democracy is weakened,” he says. “We get to the point where incivility escalates and crosses into violence. We all  have an incentive to foster civility because the higher the level of civility,  the lower the level of violence in a society.”  

 Martirossian agrees. “Looking at neighbors as enemies is very taxing on people’s psyches,” she says. “Building peace is critical.”  

 Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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4 Comments

  • What do you do with an ex-Pres. for a number of years that harrasses anyone who even attempts to replace her, and after all the new president is replaced, and the majority of unit owners are happy, the harrassment continues from the ex-president for months an months, and ignoring her doesn't seem to work?
  • Ignoring a problem never works. it just gets bigger and uglier. The new board president should let the lawyers handle it. Send a simple, yet firm letter to this ex-prez letting her know that any conversations, encounters or meetings will in the future , be directed to attny and charges will be filed. NOBODY likes going to court.
  • Should Board Members become personal friends with staff members
  • I have bugs on my front door every morning.the come from the Light over the Door. I have Ask for a Yellow Bug Light.it would solve the Problem.But our President wants white Light bulbs and we have to install them our self.