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Dealing with perennially dissatisfied individuals.
The Farbissener Factor, defined – and overcome. How a Bronx board president fosters good communication in his building.
Board President, THWAITES TERRACE HOUSE OWNERS CORP., the Bronx
Every now and then as i walked the halls of our building, a neighbor would come up to me and start a conversation about the building with the knowledge that I’m on the board. Most folks in our building are very friendly, but there is a small contingent who seem to be professional complainers and are never satisfied with anything that is done and never listen when spoken to.
Each Monday evening, I’d receive a telephone call from the then-board president, Alvin, who would update me on building things he had done during the week. One day, I told him of my experiences with these perennially dissatisfied individuals.
“They’re farbisseners, Peter,” he intoned.
“They’re what?” I said.
“Farbissener is a Yiddish word meaning a bitter person,” Al replied. “You can’t make these people happy no matter what, and it’s a complete waste of time.”
Now it became clear to me that, although my intentions to engage shareholders in a friendly conversation and listen to their concerns and complaints were sound, I certainly couldn’t satisfy everyone and had to concentrate on the vast majority who were certainly more reasonable.
Eventually, after 17 years as a board member and then president, Al retired in 2004, and, for the next three-and-a-half years, another board member assumed the presidency, and, finally, midway through 2007, after 13 years on the board, I became only the third president in our building’s 20-year history as a cooperative.
Before becoming president, I used to think of ways to foster communication between the board and shareholders, knowing how much of a problem communication was in our building. Immediately after Al retired, I began writing a one-page newsletter that would be published in-house twice a year, with the front page containing an article about co-ops in general and the reverse side about the goings-on in our building (including recent sales to serve as a guide for shareholders who were thinking of selling their apartments).
On the whole, feedback was quite positive, but several shareholders still expressed an interest in having periodic meetings throughout the year to receive updates on the building and be able to ask questions in a live forum. After taking over as president, I suggested to the board that we have a town hall-style meeting. Every member agreed, and, in February 2007, we conducted such a meeting after having posted information for about two weeks prior to the gathering urging all shareholders to attend.
I approached the meeting with a certain amount of apprehension since there were certain hot-button issues that people might want to discuss and I had to give answers. Amazingly, there were no expressions of anger by anyone but many general questions about the building. Our attorney attended as did our building manager, and the attorney addressed the audience concerning a delicate matter involving a lawsuit being brought against the building by a very elderly board member who chose not to attend the meeting. The attorney gave good news that the plaintiff’s motion was denied but he was free to appeal if he chose to. The meeting ended after only about 50 minutes, and several people came up to me to express their happiness with the board reaching out to them and asked for more such meetings in the future, which we will undoubtedly do.
I have discovered that the mere fact that people are contacted and their concerns addressed is, in many cases, enough not only to mitigate feelings of antipathy towards the leadership but also to allow people to be part of the process. They feel that the board is aware of their concerns and willing to listen to and try and solve their problems. Interestingly enough, after reviewing the attendance sheet from the meeting, I noticed almost everyone attending the meeting also attended the annual meeting, roughly one-fourth of the building. And there wasn’t a farbissener in sight.
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