Dealing with Dissidents

Being all things to all people?

“There’s nowt so queer as folk” is a phrase (variously attributed to different parts of the British Isles) that reminds us that every individual is different and, even, that some may appear to be irrational.  Most community organisations welcome into their fold almost anyone who is interested in their activities, and that means that their membership is usually very diverse.  That diversity may arise from more obvious differences such as age, sex, occupation, ethnicity, and education, but less obvious differences may relate to life experiences, health, medication, and personality type.

The reality is that organisations cannot and should not try to be “all things to all people.”  Dr. Ivan Misner, the founder of the business networking organization, BNI, pointed out in a 2009 article that “When it comes to being a truly great organization, I believe that a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none.   Instead, I believe that you should focus on your organization’s core competencies.   Do what you are good at, and do it better than anyone else.Don’t try to be all things to all people”.  That statement should remind us that organisations need to be realistic, and it has implications when dealing with people within organisations; first, in any organisation disagreements will arise and sometimes (no matter what we do) that can be unpleasant and divisive, and, second, how we respond will influence the end result.  

Community organisations – a reality check

Most community organisations experience times when members disagree, and while that can be healthy and productive it is commonly unpleasant and destructive.  It follows that disagreements should, as far as possible, be either avoided or managed as otherwise the organisation will suffer.  I’m no behavioural scientist or psychologist, but my observation is that good communication (empathetic listening, creative thinking, and clear speaking or writing) can minimise the risks associated with disagreements.

However, we do not live in a perfect world, so disagreements will on occasions boil over in community organisations.  Not all society rules contain provisions to deal with disagreements, and even if a member is guilty of the most appalling behaviour a society has no power to discipline or expel the member unless there is express power in the rules to do so (Dawkins v Antrobus (1881) 17 Ch D 615 at 620 (CA); Hunt v Border Fancy Canary Club of NZ (Inc) (2000) 8 NZCLC 262,140, para [20]).  Therefore, well-drafted rules should set out complaints processes and disciplinary procedures and consequences.

Responding to difficult people in organisations

Difficult people behave in different ways.  Some behave offensively (by aggressiveness, threats, pressure tactics, personal attacks, negativity, treating concessions as signs of weakness, physical intimidation, ultimatums and walk-outs); others behave obstructively (asserting limited authority, defensiveness, reference to third parties, setting pre-conditions, setting unrealistic deadlines, ignoring deadlines, unrealistic demands, and escalating demands); while others behave deceptively (good cop – bad cop routines, nibbling away to get more concessions after apparently agreeing, claimed legitimacy, limited authority, leaking misinformation, and deliberate misunderstanding). 

When difficulties arise, it pays to bear in mind the advice of Karl Weick, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan; you should “Fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.”  That statement echoes Henry Ford’s assertion that “If there is a secret to success, it lies in the ability to see things from another’s point of view as well as from your own.”  That means that it is imperative to listen actively (i.e. to really understand) to what others are saying and to comprehend why they are saying it. 

Instinctive or reactive responses can be counter-productive.  Experts in negotiation and mediation skills call on a range of potential techniques when dealing with difficult people and situations.  These include, in no particular order:

  • Maintain personal objectivity and a sense of perspective.  
  • Be well-prepared, and continue to question and clarify to understand the issues more clearly. 
  • Repeat the points made by a difficult person or people to demonstrate that you have heard what they have to say, and to ensure that you have a clear understanding of what they are saying.    
  • Call out deliberate offensiveness and aggression to show that you are not threatened by such offensiveness or aggression.  
  • If the difficult behaviour goes beyond acceptable limits, be soft on the person but hard on the behaviour, respond with “I” statements that acknowledge your feelings or reactions (and aren’t seen as aggressive by the other person), seek time out or even walk out.
  • Continue to be as objective and analytical as possible.  
  • If necessary, ask for time to think about what the others are saying, perhaps by seeking time to obtain advice or instructions or to discuss progress.
  • Remain silent or respond very calmly (which may unnerve a difficult person who would prefer you to demonstrate an expected “fight or flight” response).
  • Remember that to “decide in haste” is often to “repent at leisure,” so take time to review the issues, the reason for the issues being raised and the difficulties arising, and your best alternative to a proposed solution.
  • Seek to “disarm” a difficult person (for instance, by surprise, or by acknowledging the person’s status, dignity or job, by acknowledging the actual or potential validity of the point being made, the tactic used, or by agreement).  
  • Be well-prepared and well-versed in a wide range of negotiation and mediation skills, to enable you to be flexible in your approach, while keeping your ultimate objective clearly in view.
  • Seek to harness or redirect the energy of difficult people.  This can be achieved by seeking to reframe or rephrase a stated position with questions, particularly by asking “Why this, not that?,” “What about this alternative?,” and similar non-threatening questions which acknowledges the points while inviting the difficult person to be involved in finding solutions.  
  • Redirect personal attacks on you to the problem (for instance by saying “Yes, I agree we have a difficulty there,” or “Could you suggest how I could convince my committee/other members that this suggestion meets our interests and represents the fairest solution?”).
  • “Play the innocent” by asking questions appropriate to different situations that arise.  Such questions might include “I thought you had authority to settle this with me, was I wrong?,”  “Didn’t we have an agreement?,” “Are you wanting to re-open negotiations?,” “Do you need to consult with other people?,” “Would it help if I saw your colleague myself?,” “How exactly does this relate to your statement that …,” and “You know I trust you, but you understand that I’ll have to check this with my colleagues?”.

If we are to solve our problems we have a vested interest in solving a difficult person’s problems for them, preferably so they do not lose face.  Accordingly, we need to seek to identify their interests, utilise their ideas (even allowing them to take credit for our ideas), make haste slowly without pushing them, establish momentum with the easy points, suggest a wide range of options, make offers, summarise progress as we go, do the necessary work for them (such as drafting agreements, asking for their criticism and improvements, redraft etc.), and create their “victory” (you might even write their victory speech for them!).

The primary objective is to persuade difficult people by reference to principles rather than by coercing them to agree.  However, on occasions, we may need to warn them of consequences without threatening them, next threaten before using force, and finally use all the power at our command.  The general rule is to use the minimum of power necessary to attain the result; preferably operative “power to” get something done rather than the coercive “power over” someone.  If we can, “we should boost our best alternative to an agreement” (such as dealing with someone else, taking them on in their own constituency, referring to a third party, etc), and diminish their “best alternative” to an agreement.  The power of legitimacy can also be tapped to justify our approach.  If at all possible, we should endeavour to help difficult people to agree gracefully.

Satisfying agreements

A good, principled “win/win” result when dealing with difficult people will, ideally, have the following features:

  • The individual interests of all parties will be satisfied, and, preferably, mutual gains will have been made,
  • The agreement will be legitimate; by objective standards, and subjectively for all parties, 
  • The agreement will be realistic and enduring, representing the best of available options, and
  • The agreement will include incentives to ensure it is honoured; that is, it will be compliance-prone and enforceable.

When things get more formal

If disagreements get to the formal stage when grievances are raised or complaints made these need to be dealt with carefully – see the articles on The Need for an Effective Societies’ Complaints Mechanism and Principles of Natural Justice.

Some useful resources 

  • Getting To Yes, sub-titled “Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. 
  • Getting Past No, sub-titled “Dealing with Difficult People and Difficult Situations,” by William Ury.
  • Getting Together, sub-titled “Building Relationships as We Negotiate,” by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown.
  • Negotiate and Win, by Colin Rose.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey.
  • The 8th Habit: from Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey.
  • The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton.

For specific advice the issues discussed in this article, please contact Mark at

This is one of a series of articles on societies and charitable trusts by Mark von Dadelszen, a lawyer and author of Members’ Meetings, 3nd Edition, 2012, and Law of Societies, 3nd Edition, 2013 (both texts being in the course of editing for 4th editions to be published after the new Incorporated Societies Act is enacted).