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We look at our model for conflict, things really go wrong at misunderstanding, right? We can do a lot to make sure there’s no discomfort, but incidents, for example, are out of our control.
Now that we’ve unpacked conflict and we understand how our attitudes and beliefs impact on our behaviour, we understand how conflict, the beast, behaves and we understand how people and their different personality types, including our most difficult people, behave in conflict. Now we can put it all back together again and I want to talk about conflict and resolving it and the different types of outcomes we can hope for when we’re involved in facilitating outcomes for conflict.
Print this out and put it at your desk. When you’re dealing with a conflict situation, you can identify the different outcomes that are possible. When we’ve got people behaving emotionally, we’ve got three possible outcomes that could happen. An emotional reaction to conflict, the first one is flight. This goes right back to our primordial brains where we flight or fight. We run away from things or we fight. When we avoid conflict, which is the flight response, we end up with a lose-lose situation because nothing’s resolved. Avoiding conflict is a conscious decision to drag it out. It can actually escalate the positions of both parties.
The other thing that ignoring or avoiding conflict can do, or even us delaying conflict, it can really compromise your client’s position down the track. There’s a legal doctrine called ‘acquiescence’ which basically is a court or a tribunal saying that if you couldn’t take steps to enforce your legal rights, why would you expect me to do it for you now? Flight and just avoiding conflict, this all too hard and I don’t want to deal with it, it’s an emotional response that’s based on fear and it doesn’t resolve anything. It’s a lose-lose response.
The next emotional reaction that we have to conflict is to fight. “I’ll see you in court” – we hear that. “Tell them I’ll see them in court.” “Tell those tenants I’ll see them in court.” The tenants say, “I’ve been speaking with Fair Trading and I’ll see you in court.” The fight response is how we tend to frame conflict as this adversary: I win, you lose. The fight response can end up that you either win everything or you lose everything.
When you get a party that wants to win at all costs that are working through the situation, “I’ll see them in court”, “I’m right and I’ll be victorious”, it’s important to explain to them that the winner doesn’t take it all in this situation. The tribunals, even if you win anything, I think it’s really important to explain to those people that want to fight and want to go to a tribunal that you might win, you might lose. You might win some. You might lose some. At the end of the day, you’ve lost control of the outcome.
We were talking about this morning out in the corridor about how you could go to tribunal and both parties end up with a situation that they don’t want because, by the time you get there, you’ve lost control of what’s going to happen. It’s difficult to get the right result or good outcome when someone else who’s very pushed for time, which is the tribunal member, doesn’t necessarily have the time to appreciate all of the different particulars of a conflict situation.
If you fight and you go to tribunal and you do win…let’s say there was a maintenance dispute and the tenants are going for compensation because they’ve failed to enjoy that part of the property because it was broken for so long. You tried to call repair people. Even if you go to tribunal and the tenants don’t get compensation and you win because you can show that you did all you could in that particular situation, how do you think those tenants are going to go for the rest of the tenancy and the vacate?
If you win everything and the other person loses then that relationship is very, very off track, isn’t it? We can’t just be so focused on these small, little conflicts that arise in residential tenancy. We need to take a broader and understand that as property managers, we’ve got to maintain those relationships over a longer term and to longer ends.
The other thing is if you fight against a tenant, you’re going to battle with a tenant. If you win, they might see that that win is unfair. They might see you as oppressive. If you lose, they might fancy themselves victorious and righteous. Tenants talk. They review you on Facebook. They leave Google reviews. They’re at the same barbeques and stuff in your community as landlords are. When we’re in this win or loss fight reaction, how does that work for our brand and our business if that relationship’s destroyed?
The win or lose thing is an emotive response and it’s not the best one. You can see how we are evolving. We fight and flight. They’re our most basic reactions. The next one is pretty ’21st century’ where we give up. That’s all a bit hard. A lot of people do that. They go, “oh, don’t worry about it. It’s only one water bill. I can’t be bothered.” Who’s had those instructions from a landlord before, just let it go? Just let this one go. The dishwasher breaks, and how do they feel about letting that go? It’s not great. I call this the ‘lose-win everything’ situation, when you just give up because you might be prepared to let it go and give up, but it means the other party wins everything. We might down the track be resentful that we didn’t try and resolve it or come to some agreement.
If we’re putting the tenant in a position where they give up, it might feel like we’ve had a win for our landlord, but then we’ve got one that reflects on our brand. Are we then bullying? Are we then making things really hard? Will other tenants want to rent from our agency? Are we setting ourselves up for a horrific vacate process? Are they just saving it up? Giving up is not a great response either. They’re the emotional reactions, and unfortunately, they’re default for a lot of people because of all those emotional ties that are there that we’ve talked about to this pat-a-cake that is residential tenancy.
Moving into more rational territory and making business decisions, we’ve got another lose-lose situation which is evading responsibility when we talk about blame. The dishwasher breaks and the tenants say, “Well, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to fix.” The landlord says, “Well, I got it fixed last year so it’s the creditor’s situation to fix.” The creditors say, “No, it’s not under warranty anymore.” The landlord say, “What are the tenants doing with the dishwasher? They’re washing soccer balls and shoes in there? Why did the dishwasher break? It’s only 12 months old.” It sounds a bit like an emotional response but it’s actually a really rational response. No one rationally wants to just throw money around, especially if there’s no benefit to that remedial repair of the dishwasher.
Blaming is actually a pretty strong commercial tactic. It’s what insurance companies do. It’s a proactive strategy. They just blanket everyone with claims and wait for someone to pay. It’s a lose-lose because it drags the time out. If we let landlords play that game and evade responsibility, if tenants play the game and not to live up to their obligations then what we’re doing is creating causes of action for compensation further down the line. Blaming and evading responsibility, it’s a lose-lose. What we’ve got to do as property managers is really draw a line in the sand and make a professional and reasoned recommendation about the best cause of action and do that confidently because it is in the landlord’s best interest to get these things resolved.
The next rational reaction that we have is the compromise. This is a win-lose-win-lose. I’ve got a sheet that I give to my girls called: We give, they give, they get. It’s basically a list of what we can give, what we need them to give, and how we’re going to sell it to them. We do this worksheet and reverse engineer back a solution and try and negotiate a compromise. It’s really important in here that it’s not always about losing, and value is really subjective. For some tenants, it is important to them that they’re heard and understood. If they’re worried about the result of this conflict, like has anyone had a tenant say to them, “You’re going to blacklist me and I’m not going to get another rental property?” If they only knew how difficult it was to put someone on a blacklist, this imaginary blacklist database that we all apparently share. That’s a real stress for people that might find it difficult to obtain accommodation.
Sometimes a rental reference can be something that doesn’t cost us anything, like three minutes of our time. That can be something that we can give tenants for their cooperation. Helping them find another property. All of these different things: working with them, being flexible with time, dates and stuff like that. With compromise, get really creative about what we need from them. Go back to your owners. Explain to them the cost of going to tribunal. Explain to them, what’s the excess on their insurance? Try and make a financial argument about the best business case and what is worth winning? What is worth losing? If you can work out the deal breakers and what the best way forward will be, reverse engineer it. We give, they give, they get. Then, it’s a really good way to get a compromise. We call this a win-lose-win-lose. Everyone wins a bit. Everyone loses a bit.
The last of the rational reactions is a consensus approach. This is actually how other cultures handle conflict. It’s really interesting. We talked about how conflict escalates to crisis and I guess the western model for conflict. When I was in uni, I worked for a professor doing research design and research analysis. He had an adjunct professorship at the University of Hong Kong and spoke Chinese. We were looking at people’s pathways into and out of crime in this particular study. He explained to me that in Chinese characters, the Chinese characters for conflict were two separate symbols that together made the word ‘conflict’. The first word was ‘danger’, and the second word was ‘opportunity’.
They saw conflict in the Chinese culture, in the Eastern culture, as actually an opportunity to strengthen relationships, to build a better future. Yes, it’s got this danger element that things are going to go wrong, but the consensus approach to conflict is actually an opportunity to reset things and develop a win-win strategy that’s going to benefit everyone. I think it’s a much healthier way to approach conflict, it’s something that we can use in our work and adapt.
We start with things we can agree on. I spoke before when we’re dealing with the conflict personality types, the high conflict personality types, find things we can agree on. We can all agree that it would be better to get this resolved quickly because time is money in conflict more than any other time. We can all agree that as adults, we should be able to work out an outcome. We can all agree that the other party has been cooperative and we can appreciate the efforts of the other party. Even if they don’t agree with us, we can appreciate the efforts that they’ve put forth, being involved in the conflict.
We ask people to consider the perspectives of the other person. Sometimes it’s really important to run that roleplay. I’ve done that with owners before. I’ve said to them, “Well, I’ll be the landlord and you be the tenant,” and just run that roleplay with your landlord because it’s not until they then get an appreciation of empathy and perspective. I’m not saying that that puts them in a position to lose. That just puts them in a position to come to some consensus and drop the fight because we’re not about fighting and we’re not about winning. We’re about resolving, and we’re about restoration of relationships, and we’re about moving forward because that’s the best thing. It’s a long game. It’s not a short-term fight that we’ve got to win. It’s about a long-term relationship that we’ve got to preserve.
Or ask them to consider the situation objectively. If you were a tribunal member and I took this to court and I tried to say to you that the tenants had to do this, this and this and ignore that the dishwasher wasn’t repaired and you refused to do this and you refused to do this, how would you decide the case? When you ask them to consider it objectively, it’s not a challenging thing. It’s just that you’re asking the landlord to consider it from a bit of a distance. Again, it’s just about dropping that fight, understanding that no objective person is going to side with them 100%.
That’s a model for the outcomes of conflict. Your job I think, as property managers, is to find out, diagnose how we’re playing, how we’re fighting, how we’re in conflict, and try and move people along to a higher evolutionary way of behaving in conflict. Everyone needs that because when you’re a party to a conflict, you lose a certain amount of objectivity. This is my home. This is my family. Someone hurts my kids or whatever, I’m mama bear. It’s straight out of the box. For all my training and whatever in conflict resolution, someone threatens my family, say my kids aren’t beautiful geniuses, it’s like I’m ready. I’m ready to go. What I need is someone objective to guide me through that conflict.
The key takeaway from all of this as property managers is not to take on responsibility that’s not yours to take on. I’ve seen a lot of property managers in my office but also in the consulting that I’ve done across Australia. They get so emotionally invested themselves in the conflict. It’s important to understand that as property managers, we’re not parties to the conflict. We’re part of the solution.