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AJ

Nov 7, 2023

How to Handle Difficult Conversations with Association Board Members

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Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of leadership within associations. When managing an association, interacting with board members is a crucial aspect of the role. And sometimes, these interactions can be challenging. 

Read on to discover where difficult conversations may arise and how to manage them.

When Might a Difficult Conversation Arise?

Various situations can lead to difficult conversations with board members and are often related to the association's strategic direction, decision-making, interpersonal conflicts, or performance issues. Common reasons behind the need for such conversations may relate to:

  • Strategic disagreements, whereby board members might have differing opinions about the association's long-term goals, initiatives, or financial strategies.
  • Financial concerns regarding budget allocations, fundraising strategies, or financial transparency can necessitate difficult conversations.
  • Concerns about the performance or conduct of association leaders, including the president, CEO, or other key executives, can lead to difficult conversations.
  • Ethical concerns, such as conflicts of interest, misconduct, or violations of the association's code of conduct, might arise.
  • Board members might need to address concerns raised by association members. These concerns could range from dissatisfaction with member benefits to grievances against specific board decisions.
  • If a board member is not fulfilling their duties, whether it's attendance, contribution to discussions, or completion of assigned tasks, fellow board members may need to have a conversation about their performance and expectations.
  • Interpersonal conflicts between board members, such as communication breakdowns, misunderstandings, or personality clashes can hinder effective collaboration.
  • Issues related to legal compliance, adherence to the association's bylaws, or regulatory requirements may necessitate difficult conversations.
  • During times of crisis, such as public relations disasters or financial emergencies, board members may need to have difficult conversations about crisis management strategies, responsibilities, and communication plans.
  • Succession planning and leadership transition discussions, especially if it involves founding or long-term board members, can be emotionally charged.


Addressing these issues requires careful planning, active listening, and a commitment to finding mutually beneficial solutions. By approaching difficult conversations with empathy, open-mindedness, and a focus on constructive outcomes, board members can navigate these challenges effectively.

Effective Strategies for Handling Difficult Conversations with Association Board Members

Follow these steps to make any difficult conversation flow as smoothly as possible and ensure everyone is heard.

1. Prepare Thoroughly

Before initiating any difficult conversation you must prepare. Understand the issue at hand, gather relevant data, and anticipate potential questions or objections. Being well-informed will boost your confidence and enable you to respond effectively during the conversation.

2. Choose the Right Setting

The environment in which the conversation takes place will affect the outcome. Opt for a private and neutral setting where both parties can comfortably express their thoughts and concerns. This setting fosters open dialogue and minimises distractions.

3. Active Listening

During the conversation, practise active listening. Demonstrate genuine interest in the board member’s perspective. Acknowledge their concerns and validate their emotions. Listening attentively not only shows respect but also helps in understanding their viewpoint better.

4. Be Empathetic

Empathy plays a vital role in resolving conflicts. Put yourself in the board member's shoes to comprehend their feelings and motivations. Demonstrating empathy creates a connection and shows that you value their perspective, even if you disagree.

5. Stay Calm and Composed

Maintain a calm and composed demeanour, regardless of the situation. Emotional intelligence is key in handling difficult conversations. Emotional stability allows you to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively, fostering a more constructive dialogue.

6. Use Positive Language

Choose your words carefully. Frame your sentences positively and focus on solutions rather than dwelling on the problem. Positive language encourages a cooperative atmosphere and promotes collaboration in finding resolutions.

7. Seek Common Ground

Identify common goals or interests shared with the board member. Emphasising common ground can build rapport and serve as a foundation for finding mutually beneficial solutions. Highlighting shared objectives reinforces unity within the association.

8. Set Clear Expectations

Clearly outline the purpose of the conversation and the desired outcomes. Setting expectations provides a roadmap for the discussion and ensures that both parties are on the same page regarding the goals of the conversation.

9. Follow Up

After the conversation, follow up with the board member. Reiterate key points discussed, any agreements reached, and the action steps to be taken. Following up demonstrates your commitment to resolving the issue and reinforces accountability.

10. Continuous Learning

Reflect on each difficult conversation as a learning opportunity. Assess what worked well and what could have been handled differently. Continuous self-reflection enhances your communication skills and equips you for future challenging interactions.

Upskilling Communication in Your Association

Remember, handling difficult conversations is a skill that can be honed with practice and a willingness to learn. By approaching these interactions with empathy, active listening, and a solution-oriented mindset, association executives can foster a positive and collaborative environment within their organisations.

Offering professional development to your board members showcases your dedication to association governance. Our concise online micro-courses allow flexible, self-paced upskilling. Intuto offers a number of template governance modules for both new and existing board members. Interested? Let us know and we'll set a trial or demonstration for you.

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