Resolving neighbourly disputes

4 min read

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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In community-based services (which are usually free of charge as opposed to private mediation practices), the mediators are often trained volunteers who work in pairs. This ensures safety in volatile situations and provides more opportunity for language interpretation and cultural awareness.

Before bringing the two sides together, the mediators meet separately with each party to hear them out. Once the details of the alleged offence are laid out, the mediators ask a crucial question: “Why do you care?” This gets people thinking about their values and how to articulate what’s important to them. Sometimes, there’s simply no rationale for why those grass clippings have caused an all-out war.

It’s crucial that the mediators remain neutral. If a resolution is reached, it’s the disputing parties themselves who arrive at the agreement. And it’s a non-binding one in any legal sense. “It’s both the beauty and the difficulty of mediation,” says Morton Ninomiya. “No one can be forced to do anything. They develop solutions they can live with, and it’s only their own willingness to stick to the agreement that makes it work.”

Wanting it to work
Bruer calls mediation “a self-fulfilling prophecy — it works and is enforceable because people want it to be.” That said, there is a written document produced that not only outlines the neighbours’ decision but also how they will resolve things when future issues arise. Because, as Morton Ninomiya says, “it’s the leaves in fall, but it becomes the snow in winter.”

Getting to the point of agreement takes skill on the part of the mediators, and Bruer says they are chosen carefully for each individual case from a pool of trained volunteers. As the mediators listen carefully and impartially to each side, tempers often cool because the person “feels validated, they feel they’ve been heard.” When it’s time to bring everyone into the same room, a certain level of trust has been built in both the mediators and in the process itself.

Both sides now
“Once people are at the table, the mediation process works three out of four times. It works well when it’s the right process, and it’s useless when it’s not,” Bruer says. It helps if there’s an ongoing relationship between the parties, as with neighbours or family members. And it’s a give-and-take process of learning to state your own case but also hear the other person’s side. “Things are seldom one-sided in mediation and solutions aren’t imposed by an outsider, unlike a situation such as a traffic accident where there is a clear right or wrong and the parties never need to see one another again.”

After years on the 911 frontlines, Hildebrand sums it up by saying “society is made up of all kinds of people. We often have problems getting along with our own family, let alone neighbours who do things we don’t understand. We need to extend a little more understanding sometimes.”

Diana McLaren is a writer in Toronto.