ACHRNEWS

Diplomatic Communications Is Title of Seminar for MIAM Meeting

May 14, 2007
Ellen Schippert, a licensed architect/builder and owner of Schippert & Associates, Deckerville, Mich., spoke about diplomatic communication to inspectors.

CLARE, Mich. - Do HVAC contractors often have problems communicating with their local mechanical inspectors? It would be a safe bet to say that some do. It could be because both sides have different interpretations of codes (although mechanical inspectors will say the only correct one is the most recent, written code). But a better reason might be that both the contractor and inspector simply have quirks in their personalities that could be the very root of the communication problem. Maybe they just don’t understand each other.

At the recent meeting of the Mechanical Inspectors Association of Michigan (MIAM), inspector members learned about conflict and conflict management from Ellen Schippert, a licensed architect-builder and owner of Schippert & Associates, Deckerville, Mich. Her seminar was titled “Diplomatic Communications.”

Schippert introduced the subject by saying that “sometimes it seems conflict is everywhere.” She cited some examples:

• “If only that contractor would take more interest in building a safe heating system and less interest in making a profit, then…”

• “If only that owner would be more reasonable and try to understand the code from my perspective, then…”

• “If only my colleagues would enforce the code the same way I do, then…”

She noted that conflict management is at the very heart of diplomatic communications, adding that inspectors need to understand the nature of the conflict, learn tools to maneuver through the conflict, and recognize that people with different social styles approach conflict differently. (Note: See “NADCA Touches all Bases,” March 26, 2007 for a description of these social styles, a.k.a., “behavioral styles.”)

Another key factor in conflict management is documenting a particular event in order to see how it could have been handled differently. Schippert said there are four things that people should note for the purposes of documentation and identification:

1. Who was directly involved

2. Where the event took place

3. Mode of communication, e.g., face-to-face, telephone, e-mail

4. Time frame, i.e., one moment, over a period of time.

A COMMON REAL-LIFE SCENARIO

Schippert used a real-life example of a situation involving a business owner, inspector, and contractor to illustrate the nature of a conflict. The scenario involved a meeting between an inspector and a business owner at which time the inspector red-tagged a new furnace which was a replacement for one lost in a recent building fire. The owner asked for an explanation but the inspector told him to call his contractor and get it fixed. The situation escalated into bad blood between the contractor and the inspector and the eventual involvement of the city manager, who wanted to see the business reopen quickly.

Schippert said that some of the problem could have been eased if the inspector had explained to the owner why he red-tagged the furnace, rather than referring him to his contractor. She added that there are other ways to maneuver through this type of conflict.

“Separate the people from the problems or issues,” Schippert said. “In conflict, we often treat each other not as people but as problems or issues. When people get confused with problems, emotions rule the day. Work to be in a nonanxious presence and keep your emotions in check.

“In this scenario, the inspector’s position was that he could not approve the furnace installation. The owner’s position was that the furnace should have passed inspection. They should have agreed on the unstated interest; that the furnace be installed safely. That is the shared interest that they should have focused on.”

She noted that inspectors should also keep other things in mind to avoid conflict, including generating options for mutual gain.

“Generating options in which everyone that identifies with the problem can win is not always possible in code work,” Schippert said. “Where it is possible, meet with the parties, beware of preconceived answers, look for common threads, make sure options are workable for all parties involved, set aside disagreements, and focus on options that seem workable.”

She said that whenever possible, use objective criteria for conflict management. “Objective standards are based on criteria that are recognized as legitimate and are agreed upon by all parties,” Schippert said. “But not everyone agrees that codes are important or that they should apply to themselves. For those who are dissatisfied, a local review process is available. But it is often a lengthy and costly process.

“Consider educating your local government officials and the public about the building code as a way to advocate for using it as an objective standard.”

Sidebar: Michigan Contractor ‘Tags Along'

Michael Kosmalski had a legitimate concern and wanted inspectors to know about it. So the owner of Accu-Temp Inc. of Macomb, Mich., a residential HVAC service contractor, accepted an invitation by The NEWS to meet with inspectors at the Mechanical Inspectors Association of Michigan (MIAM) meeting in the mid-Michigan community of Clare, a two-hour drive for him.

Kosmalski had contacted The NEWS with his growing concern about the lack of properly sized mechanical systems in homes. He said he had been going on many service and replacement calls where the system he was looking at was either oversized or undersized for the home - and in each case the system had passed an inspection.

Kozmalski said, “All of us here are NATE-certified and Bryant factory-authorized. We also implement very strict guidelines for installation, like Manual J and D, on every job or we don’t do it. A lot of the bigger companies around here do not follow these guidelines. But isn’t it code?

“I also blame the mechanical inspectors for not enforcing the mechanical code. How come most municipalities are not enforcing the heat calculations be presented before installation?”

Kozmalski was able to talk face-to-face with MIAM inspectors and came away with a good deal of satisfaction. “We discussed some of the problem jobs I have been on with under- and over-sizing equipment that was approved that someone else installed, what inspectors look for in a contractor, what I can do to make my relationship better with my fellow inspectors, and how I can make my inspections run more smoothly next time.

“The main thing we have discussed was how to handle an approved job that is wrong, i.e., ‘diplomatic communications.’

“Often in life I get caught up in my own little world and forget that everyone else is human too, and make mistakes just like me. It sounds like most of the inspectors want what I want: to make the job right. I have learned that if I just spend a little more time with the inspector talking to them, it will go a long way.”

Publication date: 05/14/2007