The Strauss Blog

Dealing with Difficult Association Members

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One of the interesting things about working for an association management company is that I have the opportunity to interact with a diverse body of people in a multitude of industries and professions. But, each of these industries has their own challenges. Working as an administrator for these associations means that I am often the first point of contact for people who are dealing with these challenges.

However, there are some people who are just difficult to deal with no matter what situation, and no matter which association. We’ve all had the phone calls that never seem to end or the passive aggressive emails. There are just some members who are never pleased with the association or the board, despite how hard association leaders or company administrators might try. Nevertheless, these members are still an integral part of the association. The solution is to figure out how to interact with these members, while still retaining them within the association.

Start by Listening to the Association Member

To begin with, ensure the member feels heard. Even if you feel the member’s opinion is not valid, you still have to show recognition of their perspective. As soon as people start to feel ignored, they become frustrated and may not want to converse with you any longer. Simply starting an email with “thank you for your feedback” can do wonders for increasing the member’s respect.

Another helpful tactic in difficult communication is to restate what the member is saying. For example, we had a member complain relentlessly about how our phones were answered. In this situation, it would be helpful to stop the member and rephrase what they were saying to us, such as “From what you’ve been saying, I am hearing that you feel it would be better if we did not have a receptionist.” This way, you can ensure you’re understanding the member correctly and it gives the member a feeling that you are actually paying attention.

Be Prepared to Deal with Aggression

In any industry or profession, sometimes members can become aggressive. Sometimes this is shown passively, through long-winded accusatory emails with sly jabs. Other times, members can be outright rude by yelling or swearing and placing blame. When this happens, the natural response is to be emotional. It is not fun to receive a hurtful email, and the temptation is to be equally as aggressive in return. However, this will only escalate the situation. The frustrated member will likely not react well to a rude email in return, and it will reflect poorly on your association.

Often, it is best to allow for a cooling off period. While you still want to respond to the email or phone call in a timely manner, it is appropriate to allow 24 hours to let the dust settle. At the very least, close your email and take a break. Talk to someone else from your association if you need to. When you return, approach the situation with a fresh perspective.

Think About Why

It is also important to remember that while frustration and anger may be directed at you, it is often stemming from another place. Members have lives outside of your association, and many times a stranger on the other side of a computer can is just a scapegoat if things in their personal lives aren’t going well. If you can keep a degree of empathy for even the most difficult of members, it can help you stay calm in the worst interactions. This is a key element of customer service industries, and it translates well to the association world.

In a previous job, I had one particular client who would consistently complain about every aspect of the business I worked for. Like clockwork, as soon as I pressed send on a mass email, I could expect a negative response from her within five minutes. It was exhausting to be in a situation where I felt as though I could never please this woman, or do well enough for her. Eventually, I realized that she had been hurt by my industry previously, and had a lot of pent up anger towards it. Once I recognized this, I worked on affirming her presence in the industry and voicing my appreciation of her contributions. While she was still unpleasant to deal with at the best of times, we could at the very least have a legitimate conversation instead of a one-sided battle.

Ultimately, when you can learn to deal with these difficult members it will make your life easier, and will make your association function better.

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