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Mediation helps resolve neighbourly disputes

When winter finally fades, we Canadians trade our heavy clothing for warm-weather casual and our indoor hibernation for the great outdoors. Lawn mowers rev their engines, barbecues are fired up and late-night patio parties have us socializing under the stars.

That is, until the neighbour we haven't seen for the past eight months shows up, requesting in tones best reserved for the hockey arena that we "turn that thing down, or else!"

Waiting until you're ready to burst from anger at your neighbour's behaviour isn't the best way to approach resolving a conflict, but it's the typical way, says Peter Bruer. As manager of the conflict mediation service at St. Stephen's House in downtown Toronto, he's involved in finding more peaceful ways to end disputes between neighbours.

"Too often people wait until they're in a rage to talk to their neighbour about something they're bothered by. It's like road rage, where people get out of control over something."

Bruer says it can get to this stage because "people are reluctant to confront another person. They may be worried about being met by a hostile reaction, but it's also because people don't want to be seen as bothered by something someone else is doing. It takes courage to stick your neck out and say, 'I have a problem with something you're doing.' It also means you have to be prepared to hear the other person's side -- things you do that someone else doesn't like."

Silence isn't golden
Rather than working through conflict in a responsible way, too often the complainer will pursue costly legal action or misuse police services set up for serious emergencies or threats to safety. As a 911 operator in Winnipeg, Deborah Hildebrand has heard from plenty of angry neighbours.

"Some of the complaints just make me shake my head," she says. "I have heard 'their grass clippings went on my driveway.' Or 'their children are using sidewalk chalk' -- in front of their own house!" One woman Hildebrand heard from regularly insisted that her neighbours, not Mother Nature, were putting autumn leaves in her yard "no matter how many times we told her that it was fall."

In large urban areas, police trained in community relations are sent whenever possible. With the growth of more densely populated cities and the increasing diversity of Canadians, alternative dispute resolution services are springing up across the country. Scott Morton Ninomiya is executive director of Conflict Mediation Services in St. John's. Like his counterparts elsewhere, he's astonished at the lengths people will go to avoid working out a problem with a neighbour.

"People spend so much on lawyers, or they call police. I saw several people last year who said they were just going to move. It's amazing how high a price people are willing to pay to avoid conflict."

Getting help
It doesn't have to be that way. With the help of trained conflict mediators, people can stop fighting and start talking. First, the parties must be willing to go through a mediation process, so from the beginning there's potential for reaching settlement -- proving that where there's a will, there's a way.

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-- Posted: June 8, 2007
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