TenantPower Journal #2 “…from complaints to captains” and “listening”

My biggest concern leading up to the tenant association meeting was moving people from voicing their concerns about their living environment to acting to change their living environment.

Imagine starting every meeting with your neighbors as 45 minutes of complaints followed by some tepid reassurances that there is a resolution process someone can follow. That is what the early stages of building tenant power looks like. But tenant associations with repeat meetings like that do not last very long.

Many tenant associations fail because people lose interest after their complaints or concerns are not resolved. The complaints/concerns are not resolved because the tenants association doesn’t have a structure to handle problem solving. Problem solving in a multi-family apartment complex with over 1,000 units sharing similar complaints and issues requires conversations and collaboration in a structured way.

We hosted a dozen committed residents who formed a tenant association steering committee for a meeting on taking their tenant association from complaining to taking responsibility for resolving issues. This steering committee was all volunteer and was looking to increase awareness of their existence among residents and solve a number of disagreements with their landlord.

Instead of starting with issues or complaints, we facilitated a discussion on what the steering committee expected for the tenant association to accomplish. What purpose does it fulfill for residents? What does that look like in practice? What resources do we need to organize?

When we all understood what was needed from the management, our neighbors, and one another, then people signed up for specific areas of responsibility. We moved from listening to complaints to assigning “captains” to a Community Safety Team and Issue Resolution Team. These teams were suggested by the tenants based on their concerns and the purpose they envisioned the tenant association fulfilling. A volunteer stepped forward to be Secretary. There were candidates recommended as potential Chairperson of the tenant association.

The steering committee agreed on the next meeting and a general meeting open to all tenants for next month. Everyone agreed to distribute notices for the upcoming general meeting. People said afterward that they felt we had made progress.

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After any action with the tenant association, I like to step back and reflect on my actions during the meeting. What went well and what would I change next time? One of my old college professors called this, “pluses and deltas.”

Something that I would’ve changed about our meeting would be a firmer understanding of the importance of meeting notes.

I hadn’t adequately prepared to record the meeting proceedings and decisions and thus, after the meeting, sending a summary email and doing my own reflections were more difficult.

One way I think to fix this is to appoint a meeting secretary at the beginning of each meeting, even before icebreakers or introductions. I am thankful to be lucky that the tenant who stepped up to be secretary of the tenant association responded to my summary email with their own notes and said they were excited to be secretary at next week’s meeting.

When I think about the feedback I received after the meeting, I feel like one of my “pluses” was being a good listener. At many tenant rights functions, I’ve found that often tenants want to be heard more than anything. The lack of communication from their landlord’s office drives tenants to talk to anyone who will listen. It feels good to ensure they feel their issues are heard.

But as I indicated above, this can become a quagmire that stalls a tenant association from working together to resolve the problems. That’s why I’m happy that tenants had the space to express their concerns but we also finished the meeting with productive steps forward on how to address particular problems.

Thinking about the listening process prompted me to go and read a little further and share.

Anne Hope and Sally Timmel write in “Training for Transformation” about listening:

“Listening is an art, skill, and discipline…it needs self-control. The individual needs to understand what is involved in listening and develop the necessary self control to be silent and listen, keeping down his or her own needs and concentrating attention on the other with a spirit of humility.

Listening obviously is based on hearing and understanding what others say to us. Hearing becomes listening only when we pay attention to what is said and follow it very closely [emphasis in the original].”

I especially like the idea of concentrating on listening with a spirit of humility.

Some scenarios Hope and Timmel suggest to avoid in order to listen effectively include:

On-off listening: we think faster than we speak or hear others speak. Often we find ourselves summarizing what the speaker has to say and using the “spare time” to think about our own affairs, concerns, or what we will say in response to the speaker.

Red-flag listening: when we have an emotional reaction to certain words that stop our listening, tune out the speaker, and, as a result, fail to understand.

Open ears but closed mind: jumping to conclusions or predicting what the speaker will say just because the speaker is boring, makes no sense, or is repeating a point.

Glassy-eyed: looking like we are listening when we are not. Reminds me of this Calvin and Hobbes strip:

Too-deep-for-me: Letting the complexity of a discussion become an excuse not to listen.  Hope and Timmel were pointing out the “2deep4u” meme ages ago.

Don’t Rock the Boat: When someone says something that clashes with our beliefs, creating cognitive dissonance, and we slip into planning a counterattack instead of listening

I find it really useful to run through scenarios during meetings or interactions where I may have encountered the roadblocks described by Hope and Timmel. The better I can recall moments where I was not listening is a chance to learn what skills to improve upon.

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