How to resolve conflicts with a problematic neighbor without ruining your relationship
How do you resolve a conflict with a once-liked neighbor? (James N Arrington, Getty Images / February 14, 2012)
Maybe it's how they never cut their lawn. Or how their kids race their bikes up and down the sidewalk all the time. Or how they blast the stereo at all hours.
And does anyone really need 15 cats?
The aggrieved person, having finished those brownies, has several ways to deal with the bad neighbor. Some are effective; some are not.
Among the latter is the solution many have come to rely upon: Call the police. No matter that the neighbor isn't doing anything dangerous or illegal. No matter that the police have real crimes to deal with. Calling the cops almost has become a default solution, one that's not especially productive.
"No one likes having the police called on them," said Will Reimers, a neighborhood contact officer with the Boise (Idaho) Police Department. "Oftentimes that makes things worse, when suddenly police show up and start talking to you. People resent that. So it's not the best first step."
What is the best first step? Try talking to each other.
"It seems today that talking to your neighbors is something that has fallen out of fashion," Reimers said. "It's just not done as much anymore. But it's an old technique that should be resurrected."
"I think too many people are afraid to talk to the neighbor, afraid of having a hostile reaction or (being thought) a kook," said Ted Rueter, founder and director of Noise Free America (noisefree.org), an organization that seeks to bring noise pollution issues to the attention of the public and elected officials. "You've got to take that first step."
Noisemakers: Noise is a universal neighborhood complaint: loud stereos or home theater systems, barking dogs, screaming kids, motorcycles, lawn mowers being used extremely early in the day or too late at night.
"A Census Bureau report in 1999 indicated noise was the No. 1 complaint people had about their neighborhood and the No. 1 reason people want to move," Rueter said. That doesn't seem to have changed. The online site rentersinsurance.net puts noise at the top of the list of complaints about neighbors.
Resolution of any problem, from noise to intrusive children, should begin with a calm, polite discussion with the neighbor. Just don't do it when the offending activity is happening. That will only make him defensive and raise tensions. Walk over, be pleasant and broach the issue.
Frequently, the offending neighbor will have no idea that he's making you crazy.
"They say, 'Why didn't they come to me first (instead of calling the police)?' I hear that with noise disputes," Reimers said.
Explaining the problem in a respectful, even-tempered way can lead to further discussion. And if you're lucky, a solution.
"I had a neighbor when I lived in Wisconsin who had a leaf blower," Rueter said. "He used it all the time. So I talked to him and said, 'This is very bothersome to me.' He said, 'Hey, I'm in my 60s and I want my lawn to look nice.' The agreement we came to, he'd do his lawn at the same time every week. So on Tuesdays from 9 to 10, he'd get out the leaf blower and I'd leave."
Outside peacemakers: Not all neighbors are that reasonable; not all solutions are that easy. If there is a landlord, contact him or her; they usually know how to deal with bad tenants. Sometimes, though, a third party needs to be called in — another neighbor, perhaps. But even then, those driveway conversations aren't always productive.
"Sometimes we end up with a situation where there is so much bad blood over many years that somebody has to step in and be a neutral party," Reimers said. "Neighborhood contact officers often do that. We mediate on the spot — we find the issues, we talk to both parties … and we try to find a resolution.
"Sometimes it's as easy as meeting in the street to talk. Sometimes we may have to go to an office to talk. In extreme cases, you'd have to seek a professional mediator."
Mediation involves a neutral third party who sits down with both sides in a formal setting and tries to come to an agreement. Mediation can head off a dispute before it escalates, and it avoids having to go through the court system.
There are mediators and mediation groups across the country (go to nafcm.org/public/find
help to find one near you). One of the best known and most successful is Community Boards in San Francisco. Founded in 1976, it was the first public mediation program in the country, and it has trained 17,000 volunteers to be mediators, helped 48,000 residents resolve conflicts, and provided conflict resolution training and materials to 3,000 schools around the country.
"Mediation is nothing more than a meeting to talk about a problem," explained Jim Garrison, Community Boards' communications manager. "We use a panel process, three mediators who sit down with the disputants. Most commonly, there are two (disputants), but there can be three, it can be five against one."
The meetings usually last about three hours. Cost is about $15 (by comparison, a private mediator can run from $150 to $400 an hour). Sessions are confidential; nothing said in mediation can be used in court.
The key, Garrison said, is cooperation. If both parties don't want to mediate — and Community Boards can't help in about a third of the disputes brought to it — the two parties are sent elsewhere. The group has a long referral list.
As a last resort: Of course, diplomacy doesn't always work. There may be no reasoning with the neighbor. He may be stubborn. He may just be a jerk. Then you grab the phone.
If municipal ordinances are being broken — we repeat, does anyone really need 15 cats? — call the city. The same with possible health violations, such as the open burning of trash. Landscaping is always an issue — a neighbor's tree's roots are wrecking your sidewalk, his hedges are overrunning your property, there's a tree branch that looks like it's going to fall on your roof — contact city hall, which can send out a zoning enforcement official.
Sometimes, though, law enforcement is the best bet.
"When one party feels someone may be hurt, we want to be called," Reimers said. "If it's gotten out of control, where someone is going to pick up a shovel or strike a person, we should be called. Once physical violence occurs, it's pretty hard to repair a relationship."