Not So Neighborly Neighbors

Leigh Ann Roberts, Attorney and Mediator (Nashville, TN)

Have you ever had a dispute with a neighbor? If you have, you can attest to just how frustrating these conflicts can be. In my time as a mediator (a fancy name for a person who helps two disputing individuals or businesses find a resolution without resorting to litigation), I have seen even the most polite, upright citizens resort to juvenile and mean-spirited behavior.

What are the kinds of things that neighbors fight about? I have seen cases where property lines were incorrect and there were disputes over which homeowner was entitled to what property; but, most of the time, neighborhood conflicts are over much more ordinary issues: barking dogs, loud music, cooking smells and compost piles. One mediation involved two senior ladies of the neighborhood and an ancient, climbing rose bush that one homeowner loved and the other loathed as an unwanted burden to her already precarious wood fence. How do neighbors handle these types of disputes? Well, you can do what these two ladies did which was what we call in the profession, passive-aggressive communication—i.e. pouring of various household cleaners and other chemicals on the base of rose bushes, trees and other plants—or, you can approach your neighbor for what most fear will be a difficult conversation.

Based on my experience and for the welfare of all neighborhood residents and plant-life, I would like to encourage folks to pick the latter of the two options. I facilitate and engage in difficult conversations with individuals, business owners and community leaders on a daily basis. Most people, no matter who they are, would do just about anything else rather than engage in conflict or start difficult conversations. If you feel like you might be among this bunch, don't beat yourself up too badly. Statistics show that over ¾'s of all managers and leaders are conflict avoidant too. But know that if you think you might be conflict-avoidant, it will be very difficult to motivate yourself to confront others with your issues and concerns. One point to remember is that the statistics also show that approximately 80% of the time, when individuals sit down together to discuss their concerns, they come to a mutually acceptable resolution. 80%. That is better odds than you would get at any casino, my friends, so keep the chemicals under the sink and opt for a sit-down with your neighbor first. And, listen, if you just can't do it alone, call in a friend respected by both yourself and your neighbor to see if they will help facilitate the conversation. Blessed be the peacemakers, right!

Here are a few tips to remember when talking through issues with your neighbor (or spouses, co-workers, family members—you get the picture)

  1. Count to 10—Ok, don't go RIGHT over to your neighbors house when the tree limb falls on your son's new motorcycle. Take a moment, breathe, count to ten, maybe even sleep on it. This sounds simple but, believe me, it makes a big difference if you are able to start this conversation in a somewhat neutral, non-combative tone.

  2. Make an appointment to talk. - When you go to your neighbor to tell them your concerns, don't assume they have time to discuss it with you right then. As busy as people are these days, you may catch your neighbor between shifts, during a meal, during a difficult conversation with their spouse or child, etc. Let them know, "I am concerned about an issue I am having with your son's rock band practicing in the garage next to our bedroom. Would it be possible for us to talk this week some time?" I know it sounds very touchy-feely BUT, framing a conversation this way communicate respect for your neighbor's time and will decrease the likelihood of starting the conversation with a defensive person.

  3. There is no "U" in team. This one probably seems a bit trite but is an old mediator tool and I will pass it along to you. Whenever you are having a difficult conversation, try to eliminate all "You" statements. "You did this", "you never do that", "you better stop x ,y, z." These types of statements, even if they are true, tend to put people on the defensive. Try to stick with "I" statements: "I am concerned about this", "I am interested in a full night's sleep," etc. Play with this one a bit, it really works. Other tips you can learn from mediators and movies such as the "Wedding Crashers", try to avoid words like: always, never & but.

I hope these tips are helpful and go along way in preserving relations in our neighborhoods. In all seriousness, I have seen conflicts, even minor ones, plague neighborhood associations and communities for years, some even resulting in litigation. These cases are particularly difficult for participants because there is no real escape from the reminders of the ongoing conflict. Home becomes a place associated with stress and discord rather than rest and rejuvenation. Many of these conflicts could have been prevented by courage conversations by everyday neighbors. I hope you will consider trying some of these tips when you encounter your next difficult conversation and remember, if you can't imagine having this conversation without help, call in a trusted friend or community member to serve as a mediator for the discussion. You will be glad you did and so will all your plants.

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