Many condominium communities embrace the concept of preventative maintenance. When it comes to elevators, drains and HVAC systems, the notion is to proactively inspect and maintain to avoid the cost and uncertainty of problems arising. The belief is that in spending some money up front, condos are able to save in the long run.
Similar philosophies can apply to handling conflict, though it is harder to quantify the cost savings available when conflict is addressed early. The value of taking proactive steps may be less obvious when you consider the human factor of ongoing relationships as opposed to physical buildings and equipment. This is particularly the case as interactions between people can be unpredictable, time-consuming and awkward.
Some situations can appear to resolve themselves, which cannot be said for uncleaned lint traps or neglected fan coil units. It can also be harder to know what type of behaviour contributes to conflicts and, by extension, conflict prevention.
Soft skills are required. The same approach can be received in drastically different ways in various circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for board members, condominium management and others who present as the “face” of a condominium community. That said, there are strategies that can be helpful to consider in recognition of the fact that reactive approaches to conflict can be quite costly.
“Talk less, smile more”
This catchphrase from the popular musical “Hamilton” is sound advice for anyone engaging in interactions as a representative of a condominium corporation, particularly when that individual alone is not empowered to decide what will be done about a particular issue. Being friendly can invite trust and build rapport. This is a good way to manage conflicts. When condominium representatives talk more than they listen, they can be perceived not to be listening or viewed as thinking they have all the answers. Both sentiments can escalate conflict.
Condominium boards and managers can take being approachable to the next level by inviting thoughts and suggestions. It can be all too easy for condominium residents and owners not to be sure where to present their questions or when to expect a reply. Highlighting how feedback can be provided and when it will be addressed establishes shared expectations around communications that can strengthen relationships. Issues can be identified earlier on than they otherwise would. It helps minimize the risk of conflicts escalating as a result of misunderstanding. One example is to invite questions ahead of the Annual General Meeting. Not only does this offer more of a chance for one to pose a question; it also provides time to prepare a response and to consider where potential issues may emerge.
While many preventative maintenance programs are presented as checklists to be ticked off, proactively managing conflict does not work in quite the same way. Rather than waiting and reacting to something being complete, condos can share their plans, progress and challenges. This most often takes place through community e-blasts, newsletters and notice boards. Keeping members of the community in the loop as to what is going on can help ensure that they feel engaged and valued. It can also avoid the surprises and misconceptions that give rise to the escalation of conflicts.
The strategies shared can sometimes be considered trite or unimportant. They are optional, go beyond what is legally required and are not always simple and straightforward to carry out. Some might even suggest that they invite conflict by asking for issues to be raised, which might otherwise not be. The preventative approach is not about keeping eyes closed; it is about opening them. It is about engagement, awareness and a willingness to take early action. Rarely is it the case that a dispute, which ends up costing a condominium community tens of thousands of dollars, did not present opportunities that could have been embraced earlier for a fraction of that cost.
Marc Bhalla, LL.M. (DR), C.Med, Q.Arb, MCIArb is a mediator and arbitrator. He can be reached at email@example.com