By Jane F. Bolin, Esq. / Published October 2023
Welcome back to Florida. As community association boards and managers across the state begin the budget season with the backdrop of new legislative changes and reserve requirements, the most important topic to discuss is communication. Broadly speaking there is the communication required by law, such as meeting notice requirements, agendas, minutes, and official records requests. I would suggest thinking of this form of communication as the bare minimum. Most communication takes place between members of the board, managers and the board, managers and owners, and board members and unit owners. This is the form of communication that requires the most time, effort, emotion, and attention. And this is the space where discord, conflict, fighting, and issues arise.
Consider that every condominium in the state is now faced with the task of reserve studies and funding reserves (SB-4D from 2022 and SB 154 from 2023). This means budgets will inevitably increase, and special assessments will abound. The average unit owner/homeowner does not know about these changes and most likely is not following the work of your board. It is a predictable situation. People are going to be upset because they are being asked to pay more, and many are on fixed incomes and budgets. Managers and board members will be frustrated that folks did not attend meetings and pay attention to the communications that were distributed on community boards, newsletters, updates, and the like. Much like a storm in Florida, we can see it coming. Now is the time to prepare!
Your legal counsel will be able to ensure that the board properly notices meetings and sends required notices. What an attorney does not usually do is look at the full communication strategy, including the writing and tone of the accompanying messages. It is up to the board and management to decide to look at the communications being generated and consider if they are effective. What makes a communication effective is best judged from the perspective of how that communication would land with the recipient. In other words, how will the recipient feel about the communication? Do they have enough context (also known as the facts that bring forth the situation) to understand what is occurring? Is there anything else that an owner would need to know to better understand what is happening? Ask these three questions and you are on the way to being a more effective communicator for your community.
In the highly predictable scenario where an owner is emotional about a decision of the board, does the board (collectively and individually as board members) know how to respond? You may be saying to yourself that you can’t predict that because you don’t know what will be brought forth. That is an easy way to ignore the obvious. You will have discord and upset in the community. Here is a way to approach any upset that comes your way.
Step 1—Establish the relationship. Board members are both owners and volunteer leaders. Take off your board member hat and relate to the person as a fellow owner and a fellow human. If you are a manager, look at the common goal you have with the owner. You both want a thriving, successful community. The point is to find the spaces where you are related. Look for your common ground.
Step 2—Listen to understand. People often need to vent and get things “off their chest.” Don’t take this personally. Be curious about what they are saying. If you followed step 1 and really related to them, you can put yourself in their shoes. See their point of view. This does not mean you must agree with them. Simply put, it is about understanding that there is always a different perspective.
Step 3—Identify the issue. Now that you have related to them and where they are coming from and have listened to what they have said with curiosity, it is time to spot the issue. The best way to do this is to focus on the facts, not the story about the facts. As an example, an owner could say “the worst manager and greedy board are trying to steal from us with this new $40k assessment.” If you get stuck on the judgments (worst manager, greedy board, stealing), then you get caught in the story, the drama. The fact is that the owner is identifying an assessment they do not agree with.
Step 4—Action plan now or later. Repeat the issue to the owner and then ask them what they want to be done about it. You may know that what is being asked will not be possible, and you can be upfront, honest, and clear about that. In the case of our angry owner, although he may still be angry, being clear that this will not change gives him the possibility to find solutions rather than fight the perceived problem. In some cases, you may not know what to do. That is okay. Tell them you need to get input from trusted professionals. Pro tip here: let them know “by when” you will contact them, and keep that promise. If you don’t have the information by then, communicate that and reset the expectation.
This year and next will be challenging for all community associations as Floridians navigate the new reserve requirements and the cost of living continues to increase. Be prepared. Take the time to contemplate and review association communication. Improve and evolve.
Jane F. Bolin, Esq
Founding Partner, PeytonBolin
Jane F. Bolin, Esq., is the founding partner of PeytonBolin, PL—a community association and real estate law firm that serves the state of Florida. She speaks regularly about community association law and leadership. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can submit a question to www.dearcondoboard.com or www.peytonbolin.com.