6 conflict resolution strategies for dealing with difficult tenants

Barbara Ballinger
Barbara Ballinger | 6 min. read

Published on July 7, 2015

As a property manager or owner, you deal with your fair share of problem tenants. But you may want some of them to remain tenants because their positives outweigh their negatives. For example, they may always pay rent on time. If you’re determined to resolve conflicts with these tenants professionally, you may be rewarded with fewer incidents and misunderstandings — and more lease renewals and referrals.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to solving disputes. If you’re like most of your colleagues, you’ve first tried talking with these tenants calmly and listening without interrupting, even as their voices rose and faces turned deeper shades of red. When tried-and-true communications techniques don’t work, it’s time for a different approach to making peace.

To explore some alternative conflict resolution techniques, we spoke with New Haven, CT-based social worker Mark Gaynor, a member of the National Association of Social Workers, and business psychologist Rob Skacel, founder of True Edge Performance Solutions in Lancaster, PA. Additionally, we talked with real estate lawyer Aaron Shmulewitz with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, who specializes in representing coop and condo boards in New York City.

#1: Start by making a “friend” of the tenant

Neither manager nor tenant is looking for a new best buddy, but one path to a civil relationship is to treat the tenant as you would any customer in a customer-service relationship, says Dr. Skacel. “Walk in their shoes,” he advises.

A face-to-face conversation usually works better than a phone call to improve listening and understanding. “Otherwise, so much gets lost since you can’t see muscle structure, eye movement, and body language if you’re not sitting across from the other person,” Gaynor says.

Gaynor adds that where you meet matters too. Opt for a neutral place — not your office or their apartment, but maybe a quiet corner of the lobby. Explain in a calm, low-key voice that you understand their concerns and want them to understand yours.

#2: Next, move from “I” to “we”

Continue the dialogue by focusing on the problem at hand. Explain that the two of you are part of a business relationship, and that each of you has an equally important stake in finding a solution. “It’s not my way or your way, but our way that’s going to make this work,” Gaynor says.

Adds Skacel, “Stress that a good solution doesn’t cause either side a problem.” Clearly it’s much more pleasant to live in a community where most tenants get along. “You might say, ‘Would you be willing to try X?’ and point out the mutual benefit,” he says.

For example, you could ask a tenant who works the late shift to run the dishwasher early in the evening before going to work instead of when returning home after midnight.

#3: Continue to show your sympathetic side

In trying to resolve the problem, don’t try to one-up the tenant, no matter how tempting it might be. If the first idea you propose doesn’t resonate, just keep listening and offering alternatives, Gaynor suggests. The goal is to make both of you part of the process and the solution.

To reinforce this, frame your question this way: “’What do you think we should do so we all can feel happy and safe?’ Hopefully, the tenant will ask for your input, too,” Gaynor says.

Also, odd as it may sound, try not to compromise on hard-and-fast, common-sense rules. Often a compromise may feel like each side is keeping score. If building rules dictate loud music must cease by 10 p.m., remind the tenant to turn down the volume after 10, wear headphones, or get the loud music out of their system earlier in the night. “You both want to feel like you’ve earned a win-win,” Gaynor says.

#4: Be attentive to the relationship

Continue to follow the partnership concept. Take the initiative. Be extra responsive — even if you’ve been diligent all along — to show how much you want to keep improving the relationship. Performing nice deeds and keeping tenants informed of whatever’s going on — maybe new construction down the street that may make commuting or parking tougher — almost always helps. “You don’t want to get involved with each other only when problems arise,” Skacel says.

In turn, the tenant may respond by trying harder. Parents of unruly or unattended children, for instance, may start to watch them more closely and reprimand them for behavior that aggravates other tenants, like yelling, fighting, or leaving toys strewn around the hallways.

#5: Remember to be patient

Behavior doesn’t change overnight, but often it can be adjusted with positive reinforcement. If the tenant has previously let bath water run so it overflowed and leaked to the floor below suggest setting an alarm before they walk away while the tub fills, Gaynor suggests.

Then, meet again in a week for chat, depending on the issue’s severity. And keep paying attention to positive changes rather than focusing only on the negatives, says Skacel.

#6: Pay special attention to tenants who can’t be held accountable

There are times when tenants, or owners, may no longer be able to control their behavior — if ill or elderly, for example. “They may not be within full possession of their faculties and end up wandering around the building in a nightgown, shouting delusionally, imagining staff entering their unit and stealing possessions or money, or leaving an oven on,” says Shmulewitz, the attorney.

Repeated incidents like these require contacting family or friends to intervene. You may have to suggest to the family that hiring an aide or moving the person to specialized quarters is the best solution.

When you have no other recourse

And when tenants won’t comply with repeated requests and conversations, it may be time to avoid “nice efforts and go to the next level,” Shmulewitz says. “Unfortunately, I usually hear about incidents when repeated letter writing and calls have failed,” he says.

Trying to resolve conflicts amicably, though, almost always is worth the effort. Often it means holding your tongue when it’s the last thing you want to do, but it could lead to a great, long-term relationship — and spare you the cost, aggravation, and inconvenience of eviction court.

What conflict resolution strategies do you have for dealing with difficult tenants? Please leave your advice in the comment section below for your property management colleagues.

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Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate, design, and family business; her website is barbaraballinger.com. Her most recently published book is The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing).

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