trouble with the neighbors?, Before blowing your top, try the sweet approach
Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Author: PAT BURSON. STAFF WRITER
Date: Sep 12, 2005
Start Page: B.10
Edition: Combined editions
Text Word Count: 1867
(Copyright Newsday Inc., 2005)
Sometimes neighbors can be so unneighborly.
You know the type: They always seem to blast their music at the exact moment you’re putting the baby down for the night. Or they plant bushes that encroach on your property line. Or they allow their dog to poop on the sidewalk in front of your home and never clean it up.
Such behavior can drive reasonable neighbors to distraction and quickly escalate to finger-pointing, shouting matches, even fisticuffs. Sometimes things can go so far that either or both parties wind up in the hospital, court, jail or worse.
“We definitely have a nature that lends itself to entitlement, that is individualistic rather than community-based,” says Chicago- area psychologist Tim Ursiny. “And the closer you live to people, the more stress there is and the more conflict there’s going to be.”
Whether you live in a high-rise apartment in a city or a split- level in the suburbs, experts in conflict resolution say there are ways to keep a minor tiff from turning into an all-out war – if feuding neighbors are willing to try.
“So much of it is preventable by establishing a solid relationship, even if it’s just saying, ‘Hi,’ and, ‘How are you?’ and, ‘It’s real hot today,’ acknowledging the humanity of the other person,” says Mark Kleiman, executive director of Community Mediation Services Inc. in Jamaica.
“Once you’ve established that, it makes everything else so much more reasonable.”
Don’t let problems fester
Even so, some issue or conflict could arise. When that happens, Kleiman says, don’t let it fester until your anger boils over.
“Letting it go too long, you run the risk of not being able to control that emotion, and you’ll communicate things that will tend to exacerbate the situation,” he says. “Present it as a problem to be solved – not a demand to be obeyed.”
Start by presenting the problem as an observation, he says. Describe its impact on you. Then start a dialogue about how you might resolve it together.
For example, if you’re bothered by loud music coming from your next-door neighbor’s house late at night, Kleiman suggests saying something like this:
“I’ve noticed after midnight that you seem to enjoy playing music. When that happens, it tends to keep my children up. Let’s talk about what we can do about this.”
What you’ve done in a few words, he says, is acknowledge that you understand music is important to the other person. “With that acknowledgment,” he says, “they will tend to be more involved in the problem-solving.”
Some make the mistake of going to their neighbors with demands – “You need to do this” – instead of asking them to brainstorm for solutions, says Ursiny, an executive coach and author of “The Coward’s Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight” (Sourcebooks, $16.95).
For those who abhor confrontation and because such encounters can go from friendly to heated in a moment’s notice, Ursiny suggests asking your neighbor if he or she would mind your raising a certain topic. “That shows respect,” he says, and gets you off to a good start.
Also be aware of what you may be communicating in nonverbal ways. “Even if you say the right words, people respond to your body language and how you say it,” Ursiny says. “Spend time on how you’re going to say it, not just what you say.”
If you live in a co-op or an apartment building and have a beef with one of your closest neighbors, be sure to air your complaint using proper channels, says Manhattan native Kathy Braddock, who is a partner in a real-estate consulting firm and co-author of “How to Live the Good Life in New York” (City and Co., $20).
“Sometimes the proper thing might be to write your neighbor a note if things continue happening, such as guitar playing, loud music at an inappropriate hour, small children running around” – all biggies, she says, for city dwellers. If that doesn’t work, she says, take it to the building manager or head of the co-op board.
Feuds making news
Last month on Long Island, a pair of Long Beach neighbors were battling each other in court over one’s placement of a fence. In Centre Island, a coalition of landlords, homeowners and merchants filed notice with village officials claiming a local resident’s civil and property rights were violated when he was arrested and jailed for pulling out a row of bamboo the village planted to obscure views of “junk art” sculptures in his yard.
And a former Smithtown couple filed a federal lawsuit accusing their neighbors of targeting them with hate mail and forcing their interracial family out of the neighborhood – an allegation the neighbors deny.
Experts in problem-solving and conflict resolution say neighbors should resist the urge to involve the police or media in their squabbles – unless absolutely necessary.
“I would never call the cops unless there was some real violence,” Braddock says. “Unless they’re running drugs or guns or a prostitution ring, it’s a dangerous road to go for yourself. If somebody’s a little bit out of control, and they can’t respond to polite questions, what are you risking for yourself? I’d weigh it heavily.”
The media are detached observers who will do a story, not help resolve your conflict, Kleiman says. “When you call in the media, you are making it extremely difficult to open up a personal dialogue. It tends to polarize the parties to where they find it impossible to listen to each other. Mediation offers the best opportunities for such a dialogue.”
You can try to work your conflict out with the help of a trained mediator. The Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution, a unit of the New York State Unified Court System, provides grants to run Community Dispute Resolution Centers in all 62 counties. The centers give residents a community-based forum in which to resolve their conflicts instead of taking them to civil, family or criminal court. Combatants voluntarily go through mediation. Depending on the nature of their dispute, the service is typically offered at no charge.
But for those with bucks to spare, you also might consider hiring a lawyer.
Salvatore Strazzullo, an attorney with offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, says that legal assistance is a must when a neighbor is infringing on your civil or property rights. You should, however, decide how far you’re willing to take a dispute and how much time, money and energy you’re willing to expend trying to get the outcome your want.
“You have to see these people every morning,” Strazzullo says. “The last thing you want to do is tiptoe in and out of your house every day.”
Take the creative approach
Before it gets to that point, consider some creative problem- solving. For instance, if you’re working on a home-improvement project and your neighbor won’t sign off on it with local officials, “throw money at the problem,” suggests Judy Carter, a humorist, author and motivational speaker in Venice Beach, Calif., who advocates using laughter to combat stress. “Give them an inconvenience payment,” Carter says. “Sometimes a check will miraculously make their concerns disappear.”
She speaks from experience, having shelled out $500 to quiet neighbors’ concerns about her plans to build a garage on her property and get them to sign off on the project. “They have all these concerns, and I say here’s $500 for your inconvenience,” she says. By doing so, she adds, “They feel you heard them. And there’s nothing like money to acknowledge someone’s concerns. Money goes a lot further than ‘I understand.'”
But use that approach sparingly, she warns, or “they’ll start making up problems just to get the check.”
Carter says you also can make deals with them that won’t cost you a nickel. You could agree not to park in front of their house – they believe that space is reserved for them only, anyway – if they would agree to trim back their trees – a good deal for you because they won’t be dropping pesky sap on your car and driveway.
“If you are unhappy with them and they are unhappy with you, make a deal that you will give them something and they will give you something.”
Don’t let it make you a basket case. Even if you decide it’s no longer worth it and you decide to move away, Carter says, you can take something good with you from even the rottenest of neighbors. “What I tell people to do is don’t get mad, get funny,” she says. “Neighbors are like family. The depressing, irritating, annoying, crazy things they do make for funny stories at parties.”
Just tell the truth, experts say, especially good advice should your old neighbors move in across the street.
FIRST, TRY THIS
If you’re new to the block or building, getting off on the right foot with your neighbor is key.
Not only can it help you forge good, lasting friendships, but it’s crucial for promoting solid, stable communities, experts in conflict resolution and mediation agree.
Here’s some neighborly advice
Introduce yourself. “Ask about them,” says psychologist and executive coach Tim Ursiny. “Go with questions, ‘What do you do? What’s unique about the neighborhood? What could you recommend to me?'”
Consciously and regularly acknowledge your neighbors. It can be as simple as giving a wave or saying, “Hello” when you meet in the elevator or on the street.
Keep them informed. Alert your neighbors when you plan to renovate before you move in so they won’t be caught off guard by noise, dust and debris. Leave them a note or tell them in person. (This is also good advice if you’ve lived there for a while.)
Bring a gift. Take over cookies, flowers, champagne or a gift basket to welcome new neighbors. If you live in an apartment building or co-op, you could add a note, saying, “I can’t wait to meet you in the elevator,” says Manhattan real estate consultant Kathy Braddock.
Reach out to the people living on either side of you. By doing so, Braddock says, “you’re setting the tone for how you would like to be treated.” Then if you accidentally wake them up in the morning or do something else to raise their ire, “they may be angry but may be angry in a civilized way.”
– PAT BURSON
AVENUES OF MEDITATION
For neighbors seeking help mediating a conflict, the following is a list of local sites.
In Nassau County: EAC Mediation Alternative Project, Hempstead,
In Suffolk: EAC Community Mediation Center, Smithtown, 631-265- 0490
In Queens: Community Mediation Services Inc., Jamaica, 718-523- 6868
In Brooklyn: Safe Horizon, Brooklyn Mediation Center, 718-834- 6671
In Manhattan: Safe Horizon, Manhattan Mediation Center, 212-577- 1740
In Washington Heights: Washington Heights-Inwood Coalition, 212- 781-6722
In the Bronx: Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Bronx, 718-585-1190
On Staten Island: New York Center for Interpersonal Development, 718-815-4557.
To learn more, go to www.nycourts.gov/ip/adr/ index.shtml. For a complete list of other centers, go to www.ny courts.gov/ip/adr/
– PAT BURSON
Caption: NEWSDAY FILE PHOTO / TONY JEROME-Neighbors over picket fence sharing sugar and coffee.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Strazzullo Law & Associates, PLLC
Salvatore E. Strazzullo, Esq.
7101 18th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11204