Written by Richard Thompson on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 3:46 pm
Dealing with difficult people in any setting can be a real challenge. But in volunteer-based homeowner associations, where there is none of the leverage managers have with employees, there is an entirely new level of difficulty. And, believe it or not, a new level of opportunity. The key is common interest.
Where we live means a lot more to us than any other physical environment. Our territoriality buttons are more easily pushed. Our investment is greater. We can easily get defensive of our personal space and quickly lose sight of community issues. It's worth recognizing that, to one degree or another, we all have this in common. What unites us seems to divide us and vice versa. In a community association we are challenged to balance our individual and collective needs.
Most of us believe it's a good thing to work toward achieving that balance, but some people seem oblivious to it. And some people seem downright determined to undermine it. It's easy to imagine that the folks who obstruct or dismantle our meetings have malicious intent, or at least thoughtless disregard.
Why are some people so difficult? Because they learned how -- and because they didn't learn how not to. The seriously difficult person is significantly dis-inhibited. He or she didn't learn the typical social inhibitors that make for balanced exchanges. Most of us know how to "make nice," even when we don't much want to. Some people simply don't know how.
We can name some of the more difficult behaviors and we can speculate about what motivates them. In general, fear is the prime motivator. Extremely difficult people are extremely dis-inhibited in their response to fear.
Terrorist Behavior literally holds a group hostage. In extreme cases, this includes streams of abusive language, threats or emotional outbursts (yelling, crying, banging). There is frequently a relentless nature to all of this, so it's clear to the group that nothing else stands a chance of going on.
Aggressive Behavior is domineering, offensive, in-your-face and is easily triggered. In fact, the threat of aggression hangs over the group and creates an underlying tension. This behavior is more controlled than the first category in that it is less all-over-the-map and probably more directed at individuals than at the entire group.
Passive-Aggressive Behavior avoids full-blown confrontation but strikes out covertly. Hidden agendas and character assassination attempt to sabotage normal, above-board group process and interaction.
Unyielding Behavior is unable or unwilling to set a past issue aside. The issue or emotion keeps coming up, even when the subject is different and the cast of characters has changed. Everything is referenced to an unresolved past. While this behavior is less invasive and threatening than those above, its continued presence is an energy drain and source of frustration.
Persecuted Behavior is the victim response -- blaming, whining and complaining. Although most of us enjoy complaining and grousing about things from time to time, persecuted behavior stems from a non-stop, perennial point of view. And since the victim perspective predominates, it s easy for your group to join the list of persecutors.
Polarity Response is a behavior unfamiliar in name but not in most everyone's experience. Whatever the issue or opinion, the polarity responder takes the opposite view. Disagreement is automatic. This can include and goes past the devil's advocate role some people take on in groups. Most polarity responders seem unaware of their behavior and its impact on others.
What can you do? While you were reading the descriptions above you were probably thinking of specific examples from your own experience, and that may have left you wondering what you can do to stay focused and flexible in the face of such behavior. That's not surprising. A change of focus is in order. Here are five things you can do:
1. Notice your response. Is the behavior one that really "pushes your buttons"? Your first step is to consider what‘s going on with you in this unpleasant situation. Be responsible for your own reactions -- after all, that's one of the things you wish that difficult person would do.
2. Change what you're doing. Since you can't really change someone else, change what you can. The results can be surprising and rewarding. First of all, it shifts you from being at the mercy of the situation. As soon as you begin to consider exercising new options, you step out of the problem frame and onto a larger canvas. This re-framing is an important shift in perspective.
3. Ask the person "What do you want?" You may think you know but you may learn a few things you didn't know by asking. Of course, it's hard to ask the question after things have spiraled out of control. Hopefully you can find a good time to ask, because it's the ideal starting point for building rapport and trust.
4. Focus on outcomes. Your group needs to ask itself the "What do you want?" question. Spend whatever time it takes to generate a set of goals and objectives as well as how to meet them. Now comes the really important part of this formula (in bold italics): Once you have specified your outcomes, decide what behaviors will support getting them like: Patience. Assuming Positive Intent. Willingness to Listen. Generate your list of behaviors during meetings in a conspicuous place. This will be a great reminder for even the positive contributors in the group. And when the negative behaviors erupt, you can point to the list, not at the person. Stay focused on what you want. If the difficult person is unwilling to change behavior, you will also need to specify how the group will respond.
5. Consider alternatives. What will you do if the difficult behavior persists? One option could be to take a five minute break. (This is sort of like pushing the group re-set button). During the break, clarify for the difficult person what the goals for the meeting are and which behaviors support those goals. Then state what the next step will be if the difficulties arise again. Be prepared to quickly adjourn your meeting if the behaviors continue. For the extreme behaviors, it may be the only useful choice. Consistently applied, it will send the message that certain behaviors aren't acceptable.
Common interests are the basis for improving cooperation. The more clearly you identify how your interests overlap and become shared, the stronger you'll be in your response to the whole range of difficult behaviors.