Request for Consultation
Posted 10/24/08

Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Issues
How long a minute is depends on
what side of the bathroom door you're on ...

Dealing with difficult people is kind of like that. Determining if someone is difficult often depends on which "side of the table" you are sitting on ...

Is someone who wants to fly a flag on the 4th of July inherently difficult? What if you have to tell them they cannot do it? Are you the difficult one? Is someone who wants to hang Christmas lights on their balcony difficult? Are you, if you tell them it is not okay? Are they wrong? Are you a scrooge? Is someone who wants to take their dog out for a run a good caretaker, or a difficult person? What about someone who loves the smell of fresh sheets and towels and wants to hang their clean wash outside to dry? Is that person inherently a difficult person? Does a person become a difficult person just because they argue that any of these activities should be allowed? What if you are the board member who is expected to tell a family at the pool that their baby cannot be in the pool without a specially made swim diaper, or that their 12 year old may not go in the spa with them? Are you the difficult person, or are they? If someone wants to smoke in the privacy of their home, are they difficult? If someone is extremely sensitive to smoke and is bothered by it, are they the difficult one? Is the person with Autism more difficult, or the person who lives next door and cannot get any rest? See what I mean, it depends on which side of the table, wall, or door you are on.

What do you think the definition of a difficult person is?

I think it is simple. If someone does not agree with you, I would venture to guess you think them difficult, and the more they disagree, I would venture to guess the more difficult you think they are.

How do you handle this dichotomy? I believe it is fairly simple in most cases. If everyone would at least "lend an ear" to the person that disagrees with them, and try to understand where the person is coming from, many potential battles could be diffused before they become wars. Clearly, the flip side is that differences escalate in many cases simply because people lack the necessary skills to be diplomatic, and so neither side really listens to, hears, or acknowledges the other's right to ask questions or have an opinion.

Now, I hope you are not thinking, "Ugh ­ here comes a "touchy feely" attorney who is going to talk about "active listening", and avoiding the "you" word, and regurgitating every sentence in a positive tone.

I could talk about all those things, because they relate directly to good people skills, and people with good "people skills" are better with people, and better at solving the disputes that arise involving "difficult people".  But that is for another time and another article. (Still, I would strongly advise a mediation class for anyone who has to deal with people, whether they want to be a mediator or not.)

Anyway, I could write a whole book on the subject.  In fact I have ...written two ... on common interest living. For purposes of this subject, I will stick to some basics.


Gadflies: These are people who needle the Board of Directors.  Webster's Dictionary defines gadfly as: "...any one of the several large flies, such as the horsefly, that bite livestock ... [and as] a person who annoys others or rouses them from complacency." These are two really different concepts, aren't they? One has a negative connotation, while the other can have quite a positive connotation. The "fly" that "bites" becomes an annoyance but anyone who can arouse incompetent or lazy board members or other homeowners out of complacency (think of overcoming apathy) may be a real asset. 

Here are some quotations from some city officials who were quoted in the [California] Contra Costa County Times a few years ago about gadflies:

"In Greek Mythology, a gadfly chased an ox all over Asia Minor. A gadfly is a person who keeps bringing up uncomfortable questions that officials might prefer to leave dormant. A gadfly goads officials into doing something they might prefer not to do, good or bad."  Robert Good, Albany City Councilman.

"A gadfly is a person persistently buzzing with stimulating and provocative ideas intended to improve the world. Not all people who participate in public meetings are gadflies." Greg Wheatland, Orinda City Councilman.

Some are not as kind as the persons quoted above. Here are some quotations of others from the article about gadflies (people who were apparently unwilling to be identified as the speaker):

"I think gadfly has a negative connotation. I think of stinging and biting -- vitriolic speeches for ego-aggrandizing, speaking just to hear yourself speak or to put someone else down.  I prefer the image of an old mule that keeps coming back tenaciously to get something done." (Unidentified quotation.)

"A gadfly is someone who is ever-present and often irritating."

"A gadfly is someone who is sort of ridiculous. He postures before local government, never accomplishes anything, and is heard out simply because the public agency is required to have public forum.  A gadfly harps on some subject and is not listened to.  He is dismissed as an eccentric."

Can you relate?

The article was describing several activists, gadflies, or whatever you want to call them.  One in particular, after proffering what turned out to be a notebook binder full of letters, months of speaking out of public forms, and eventual involvement of the press - which was a last-ditch effort to get the officials to pay attention - began to positively influence City decisions. The City put the person on the budget review committee and seven pages written by him were incorporated into the new City plan.  He ultimately "impressed" a large number of people, although I'm sure at the beginning of his foray many people exercised a very uncomfortable level of frustration at his nitpicking.  This might not be the perfect "Cinderella story", as the article went on to say that this person still critiques many City decisions, but this example illustrates that some of the critics have positive things to offer, like the willingness to take a detailed look at things, to research, to question, and to offer suggestions or solutions.

Another gadfly in the story, dubbed the "Tree Man", was described like this:

"He faces away from the City Council members at the podium when he speaks and stands tall, arms crossed, facing the audience.  He says he comes to the meetings to speak to the public, not the officials."

This person may not always be taken seriously, but if he appeared at a board meeting in a California homeowners association for which he was a member, he would be entitled to his time to comment, like everyone else. The statute says owners have an opportunity to "address" the Board, but if someone wanted to do that with their back to the Board, so be it.

Tips For Dealing With "Gadflies" as Meetings  

  • Give them a project or appoint them to serve on a committee.
  • Ask for their comments in writing.
  • Schedule specific times for homeowner forums.
  • Listen and acknowledge (this does not mean you have to agree).
  • Don't respond on the spot.
  • Consult the right kind of expert or do the research by investigation of the reported problem issue before giving any response.
  • If the person is disruptive, arrange for a Sergeant at arms to be present or adjourn the meeting and reschedule for a later time, possibly eventhat same evening, in a different location.
  • Consider having a written meetings policy outlining these possibilities.
  • Consider an egg timer for the homeowner forum time limitation

KEY TIP: It's more difficult for a person to argue with a piece of paper or an egg timer than the President of the Board, AND the Board does not have to respond to everything that is said. A simple: "We will appoint someone to look into that" ...or ... "Thank you for sharing your thoughts" ... is often enough.

The Value Of A Homeowner Forum:

Even with an ever-present gadfly, a board has a lot to be gained by holding a homeowners forum:  

  • It gives the owners a chance to address the board, lets the Board know what their concerns are, what they are thinking, and what kind of issues and rumors might be floating among the membership.
  • It gives the owners a chance to air their grievances which might be beneficial in the same way letting steam off could be in the case of a potential earthquake or volcano waiting to happen.
  • It gives the Board of chance to address and assess the homeowners who come to meetings which could prove very beneficial at some time in the future when the Board members are tired of serving and are looking for replacements.
  • It gives the Board a chance to expand its vision, to hear new ideas or twists on old ones.
  • It might be the first opportunity the board has to begin to identify a prevailing problem with regard to maintenance or other issues relating to the association property that needs attention.
  • It gives the board the opportunity to listen to the homeowners and acknowledge them, without necessarily agreeing with their positions. Acknowledgment can be accomplished in many cases by simply listening and thanking the owner for being interested enough in association affairs to come to meetings and bring up concerns.
Structure is the key to the useful "forum", and to the business meeting as well. And an air of open-ness and a willingness to discuss difficult problems facing the association and the Board in open meetings is a critical component. Nothing makes it easier for a person who is trying to gather forces to criticize and upset a board then being able to tell other owners that the Board is secretive, dishonest and not willing to hear any criticism.

The "Records Seekers"

Boards and management are often loathe to let a particularly "difficult" or "accusatory" homeowner review any of the association records because (in their words - or thoughts): "They are just looking for something to use against us." Many Boards and management are particularly skeptical of giving a homeowner a copy of the association membership list because (in their words or thoughts): "They are just wanting to send some negative propaganda to the other owners." The leaders do not want to show owners contracts often  because they think "They just want to know how much money we make and its none of their businessŠ," or "They just want to take it over to their cousins so they can bring back a cheaper bid."

Refusal to provide records (any records, even those that are required by law to be provided) could easily be perceived (even if inconvenience is the only impetus) as a defensive position.

In any event, members that cannot get copies of or review association records, or obtain a copy of the membership list, often ramp up their efforts and cause more stress, and use the refusal to enlist cohorts. So I say, and California law provides, a homeowner has a right to review many of the association records, to have access to other members via the membership list, or at least have some means of getting publications sent to the members, so why not avoid the escalation part of things and let them do their thing. You have to anyway. Why end up in court, small claims or otherwise, facing potential fines and embarrassing court orders that fuel the fire of the owner with the cause?

Make arrangements by adopting a reasonable process that will allow owners to review the association records that they are allowed to review and make it is simple as possible, so as to avoid stress over trying to figure out how to avoid the law being carried out. Adopt processes that allow homeowners to address the membership as well, if you do not want to release the list (as may be a wise decision in this day and age of rampant identity theft and lack of moral and ethical means of approach for a cause). There is nothing preventing a board from initiating whatever types of damage control may be needed if the message carried by the owners opposing the board on any issue provides a hostile and incorrect or inaccurate message to the membership.

Key Tip: In situations where owners ask for more than they are entitled to see under the law, just keep in mind that it is never an appropriate solution to call out an owner or publicly persecute them in retaliation for being difficult or stubborn. You may need to seek court restraining orders that would restrict an owner's conduct in some cases. But don't ever get down in the mud with pigs. That means, don't retaliate or lower yourself to the level of the lowest common denominator. You will get dirty, and you may expose the HOA and other Board members to legal liability. Figure out a responsible and rational response to unreasonable demands. Get it down on paper for the record.

The "Castle-Dweller"

This could be any owner who insists on doing it their way or having it their way without regard for their neighbors or the board. This could be a heavy smoker, a "stomper", someone who modifies their property without permission in a way that adversely affects the neighbors, a nuisance, someone who ignores rules, threatens the neighborhood, parks wherever they want, disregards neighbors' pleas for reasonable behavior or courtesy, or uses their property for a garbage dump. They believe their home is their Castle and no one can tell them what to do.

If everyone would just stop and think a minute about "what the reality is", instead of "trying to win the eternal argument", there is a chance of having an actual "negotiation" to the end of an actual "resolution".

Sometimes explaining "reality" helps and this should help: If a person buys a 1000 acre ranch in Montana or chooses to live in a secluded out-of-the-way mountain cabin, they can do just about  anything they want to without disturbing anyone else or without impinging on anyone else's lifestyle. However, if that same person moves into a settlement, or more modernly, a county or town, they will be subject to county or town ordinances.  If they move into the city, they will be burdened with additional city ordinances on top of the county ordinances.  If they move into a homeowners association, they will, again, be saddled with additional restrictions on their property. If the homeowners association is a particularly dense condominium development, there will be even more rules to live by than a single family home common interest development that just shares roads or recreational facilities. Why is this the case?  It is a matter of necessity. As people in get shoved closer and closer together, they have to behave with more civility and responsibility. Can everyone be trusted to do so? Not so much ... it's that simple.

Here are examples of some of the worst situations you could see (or maybe have already seen):

  • A person who is so dilatory in maintaining their property that it becomes a fire hazard, a safety hazard, an eyesore or an aesthetic nightmare.
  • A criminal, or person who associates with criminals, who runs a drug house, a flophouse, a party house, a kennel, or a home for sex offenders or wayward "probationees".
  • A vitriolic egocentric always has to have the last word and that leads to uncomfortable exchanges and never ending arguments.
  • A weak mother or grandmother has lost control over her own home because of an impossibly aggressive adult child (usually male) who intimidates everyone within shouting distance.
  • An intolerant racist who harasses a neighbor.
  • A crazy person who waters the walls of their unit, sits on the roof and shouts epithets, wanders the complex in their underwear late at night, or who feeds the ducks at the pond so much bird food they procreate and breed rogue ducks who will not leave, spoiling the area for all others, or .... (you can only imagine).
  • An attorney board member or owner who knows nothing about common interest development law but thinks they do, who is used to winning by virtue of arguing the loudest and longest of anyone else in the room, and who is willing to utilize their "station" to try and intimidate others.

These are some of the worst I have seen and there is a story behind each one of them. What do you do about these people in these situations? 

Try these simple principles first for the enforcement or other difficult cases.


  • Get as much information as possible when a complaint is made, and act only on written complaints, unless the emergency nature of the situation requires action.
  • Try and initiate communication about the violation and make it investigatory rather than confrontational or accusatory.
  • Try using an association liaison as the first contact, or some non-adversarial person or committee to review the matter or contact the owner before any recommendation is made to the board, of course, this is not something you would want to use in dealing with the criminal element or an overbearing or unpredictable person.
  • Use ADR -- an alternative dispute resolution procedure -- whenever possible.
  • Separate the emotional agendas from the substantive issues so you can concentrate on how the dispute might be resolved without trying to change someone or argue with them.
  • Be unconditionally constructive and avoid the eye-for-an-eye mentality.
  • Treat others that you would have them treat you.
  • Listen to what the other person has to say even if they won't listen to you.
  • Don't break your end of the agreement even if the other party does.
  • Avoid bias and recognize different perspectives because where you stand on any issue may depend on where you sit (meaning which side of the table - board or owner).
  • Try to standardize association procedures in dealing with CC&R violations as much as possible and follow the procedures as consistently as possible.

Key Tip: If none of these concepts work, you might want to get thee to the right kind of professional for help. Do not get started down the wrong road with really difficult people. You can try approaches that are pragmatic, fair, reasonable, and that involve due process, active listening, and understanding, and try to satisfy those of procedures and processes dictated by the association's governing documents and California law, first. In most cases, that will work just fine. In the worst case scenarios, you may need help.

WHY TO AVOID ACTUAL USE OF THE ABOVE "LABELS". Is it necessary to figure out how to distinguish difficult people from diligent, tenacious, inquisitive, strong-willed, or hard-working individuals? The answer is yes. But using these terms in describing residents is not recommended. It is best to stay away from labels because use of labels may lead to biased treatment of the person. Whether you are talking about homeowners, board members, the HOA vendors, or professionals that serve the association, once they get labeled with the terms "difficult", "burned out", or "disgruntled", people might be deterred from hearing the "message", and it could be an important one.  And if the labels are worse, well Š one may be looking at defamation charges.

Furthermore, once someone is dubbed with one of these labels, word spreads, and there is often resistance to believing what they say, giving them the benefit of the doubt, or treating them consistently with other people. And inconsistent treatment of residents can lead to very big issues - in fact, in the context of enforcing the rules and regulations of the HOA, it is the #1 cause of lawsuits against associations (as reported by Chubb Insurance Group).

And, the reverse can also be true.  If a group of homeowners has dubbed board members or the HOA manager as difficult or worse, others may believe that, even if they have no personal experience with the Board, or even if there is no basis in fact. That may lead to distrust or barriers to effective communication.

Even if an owner deserves the label "difficult", they must be treated consistently with others and cannot be singled out inappropriately. You cannot summarily exclude, fire, or evict a difficult owner in the same manner that you might dismiss an employee or contractor that becomes unpopular or defiant. You cannot recall a homeowner as might be the case for a difficult or offensive board member.  You might be able to get them arrested if they are doing something illegal or get them sent off to the local mental hospital (and even committed) if they are doing something crazy, but short of that, you'll have to figure out a way to deal with them.

copyright 2008, Beth Grimm, all rights reserved.

By Beth A. Grimm, Attorney. A "service oriented" attorney and member of ECHO and CAI and various other industry organizations in California and nationally, host of the website www.californiacondoguru.com; two Blogs: California Condominium & HOA Law Blog, and Condolawguru.com Blog, and author of many helpful community association publications which can be found in the webstore on her site.