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Communication is a talent board members should exhibit
By Jordan Shifrin | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/11/2009 12:00 AM

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In representing associations for almost three decades, I believe one area in which I have developed the most expertise is human dynamics.

Why association living is often difficult often boils down to issues involving communication. Try to resolve a business dispute on an emotional level and you'll have a front-row seat at a prize fight. Resolve the communication issues and, voilà, no problems.

The board president is a bully, the homeowner in the audience is a demagogue, the property manager is a do-nothing know-it-all, and on and on - all the stereotypical labels. If the subject of all this attention was better at communicating their message, there would be no animosity and their role could actually be appreciated.

Sometimes it is not necessarily what is said, or even how it is said, as much as how a person is perceived by the listener. If the treasurer is perceived to be untrustworthy, watch out when he makes his report on the forthcoming special assessment. Some people will mutter that the treasurer he has been stealing money, even though for the past 20 years the board has refused to provide for adequate reserves.

How can we better deliver our message so we can be more effective? How you deliver the message is more important than the information you convey. How you act before, during and after communicating will determine the level of cooperation. Whether you are the communicator or the listener, your body language and facial expressions, as well as tone of voice, may decide the outcome of your effectiveness.

If you are having difficulty communicating, or are observant of someone who is, ask yourself these questions and perhaps with just a minor adjustment of style, you can see a deflection of this prior hostility and a much better result.

• Are you consistent in your actions, and as a result, predictable? Consistency and predictability often translates into reliability. People who are not perceived this way often give off an air of untrustworthiness. Shifting of values and priorities are viewed as unpredictable and create insecurity and lack of trust.

• Straight talkers can be perceived as honorable, direct, a person of conviction or as lacking in tact and a bully. It is all a matter of how forceful the message is delivered. Are you delivering a statement of belief, conviction, or are you trying to ram it down someone's throat?

• Are you exhibiting empathy; the ability to know and feel what others are feeling? "I feel your pain," is a message that can be a trust builder. However, going overboard can come across as wishy-washy and soft.

• Is there genuine concern being conveyed, or is it mere lip-service? If the concern is perceived to be genuine it will build trust. If it is perceived to be false, however, it will create the highest level of animosity.

• Communicating expertise is important because the more the listener realizes the speaker has the education and background to discuss a topic, the more a listener will be at ease or will be willing to back down.

• Develop a level of competency, even if it's the narrowest of areas, and it will result in confidence in the listener. A board member who knows everything there is to know about a narrow topic, such as dealing with painting contractors, will not generate criticism so long as they can communicate that expertise. Hemming and hawing, being unprepared, or being unsure creates anxiety.

• Exhibit a level of authority without generating fear. Authority will result in respect; creating fear will result in hostility. Sometimes striking a balance is the most difficult thing of all. Be an enlightened despot, or a benevolent dictator.

• Offer help because you know someone or something that will be useful. If you are perceived to be able to influence an outcome in a positive fashion, you will be effective in your communication. Being conscious of how you are saying things is just as important as what you say.

• Body language gives cues to your listeners that you are unaware you are sending. If you are making a presentation to the homeowners and you fold your arms in response to a pointed question, no matter how sincere you sound, your body language has delivered a message that you are not listening to a differing point of view and have already made up your mind.

By studying these dynamics and thinking about how you come across and better understanding what a speaker is saying, it will result in less hostility and better understanding; ergo, better communication, better meetings and the perception of a well run association.

• Jordan Shifrin is an attorney with Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit in Buffalo Grove. Send questions for the column to him at jshifrin@ksnlaw.com. This column is not a substitute for consultation with legal counsel. Past columns can be read at www.ksnlaw.net.