Love Thy Neighbor–How to Diffuse Issues Before They Explode

Unless you live on a ranch in the middle of—no one here but us cows, you’ve got neighbors; real, imperfect, human neighbors.

If you’re lucky, those neighbors will err on the side of kindness; the friendly hello every time they see you neighbors, the happy to feed your cat when you’re away neighbors; the sort of neighbors that welcome you to backyard cookouts and Fourth of July celebrations. If your neighbors are real gems, they may even break out the wrenches when they see that you have an auto issue, or help you move a massive piece of furniture. This, of course, is the ultimate utopia of neighbor relations. 

On the—not a shred of green side of the fence,  you may find neighbors who complain about everything, from the way you mow your lawn, to your dog, your kids, the property lines and the branches that grow across those lines.

At the extreme end of the neighbor scale, you may find yourself living unacceptably close to a substance abusing hateful sociopath, who screams profanity and threatens you daily, making your home a prison where you cower for your life. Unfortunately, situations like this actually do exist, and often end with arrests and funerals. Thankfully, these extreme cases are the exception.

The most common complaint among neighbors is noise pollution; parties to which you have not been invited that go too late and too loud. Perhaps the band is back and better than ever at the house of the drummer next door, maybe your morning meditation becomes impossible because your neighbor thinks 8 a.m. is the perfect time to blast the melodic sounds of the Sex Pistols or Black Flag.  

An officer with the RCMP stated—”most issues are fueled by drugs, alcohol, and inconsiderate conduct”. He further stated that—“most people are able to solve their neighbor problems peacefully amongst themselves”.

Frankie Casillas, of Palm Bay, Florida, said he was petrified when his bedroom suddenly shook at 3 o’clock one morning. The next-door neighbor had fired a gun. “Police were telling him to ‘come out with your hands up’ for almost two hours”.  Eventually, the shooter walked out of the house and into handcuffs. Once the shooter was released from custody, he approached Casillas and apologized for his conduct. Casillas accepted his apology and there were no further incidences involving this neighbor. If Casillas had chosen to hold a grudge, or to retaliate over the disturbance, things may not have been resolved so peacefully.

Diffusing annoyances may become difficult, if not next to impossible, when issues involve neighbors who are egotistical and inflexible.

Anne Spencer, of Ontario, Canada, became concerned when she noticed the cedar trees in her backyard were turning brown. As she and her husband inspected the trees more closely, they discovered a drain hose that originated from their neighbor’s small manmade pond.  Each Fall the neighbor cleaned the pond with bleach and had covertly maneuvered the hose onto the Spencer’s property, causing their cherished cedars to soak up the bleach enhanced runoff.

Previous encounters with this neighbor had taught the Spencers that speaking to them about the issue would do no good—“Our neighbor lives in denial and therefore approaching them was not an option. We cut our losses and moved what was left of the cedars. Three of seven survived”.  Mrs. Spencer simply pushed the hose back onto the neighbor’s property.   

Many people would not have handled the loss of beloved trees in the same quiet manner. In the same situation many people would have exploded, taken revenge; possibly setting off a full-blown feud. Obviously, the Spencers knew a confrontation would detract from their personal harmony and chose a passive solution.

But what if you feel you must confront a neighbor? How can you do this and still live in harmony?

Alecia Pirulis, Content Marketing Manager for Apartments.com, shares: 6 Strategies for Handling a Dispute With a Neighbor, on the Apartments.com Renterverse blog.

Pirulis’ first tip is a basic but important one. “Get to know your neighbors—say hello…introduce yourself…getting to know your neighbors early on, before any disputes develop, will make it much easier to approach them later if an issue arises”.

Pirulis urges residents to use restraint in the face of a neighbor issue—“Don’t react in the moment”. Allowing yourself a cooling down period will give you time to consider how you can address the issue in a calm respectful manner.

Another important point that Pirulis makes, is that your neighbor may not realize there is an issue. Pirulis uses a common neighbor problem to illustrate this point—“[The] neighbor’s dog barks constantly after they leave and won’t stop until they return,”.  Your mention of the barking may be the first time your neighbors are learning of the problem, so—“Approach this diplomatically”.

The Renterverse article also suggests putting some thought into what you hope to gain from neighbor negotiations. Is the problem an ongoing issue, or is it something that happens only on occasion?

“If they only took your parking spot once, it could have been an emergency and it won’t happen again”.

Having a plan before broaching the issue—“will help you discuss the situation with your neighbor in a more productive way”.

Part of your plan should involve you educating yourself. Pirulis refers to “apartment community guidelines” when encouraging people to learn their community policies, but whether you live in a house (with or without an HOA), an apartment, or a condominium, you should familiarize yourself with all rights and regulations that apply to you, as well as to your neighbors. The neighborhood issue you wish to contest, may not actually be a violation.

An officer with Melbourne PD stated—”it’s not illegal for a person to be drunk in their own home” (providing they are of legal age, of course). Also, that—“It’s not illegal for a person to shout nasty things at you”.  

If you have tried every civil method of coming together with your neighbor, and the issue remains unresolved, perhaps you should seek the help of a mediator.  Certainly, no one wants to spend money on negotiations if they don’t have to, but as stated on the Seattle PD website, Seattle.gov, “most cities have free mediation”. Check with your local police department, or city hall to see if your community does offer such a service. This may prevent annoying costly lawsuits that may even increase tensions between you and your neighbor.

Of course, there are no guarantees with any of these methods, but if you make no attempt whatsoever to diffuse tensions with your neighbors, if you are egotistical and rigid, you could be setting yourself up for years of misery; someone has to take the first step toward resolution and peace.  

One Titusville, Florida neighborhood became a glaring example of what can happen when neighbors simply react on ego and raw emotion.

Something as innocent as a birthday gift for a 12-year-old girl became the accelerant for a feud that raged for weeks and ended with three men shot; two to death. The gift was for Billy Woodward’s daughter, it went missing from the porch of the Woodward’s house in 2012.  Accusations were made, offenses were taken, and the feud was on—in a big way.

No attempt was made to discuss the issue peacefully. The accused family retaliated with vicious verbal attacks, another neighbor joined the side of the accused, and Billy and his family came under almost constant assault.

Billy’s house was targeted. The neighbors honked their horns, day and night, all while shouting insults and threats. At one point the feud became so ugly that the neighbors allegedly threatened to have Billy’s 12-year-old daughter raped, and their house burned to the ground.

The police were called to the street over a dozen times in a two-week period. The police would show up and send everyone home, but as soon as the law left, the relentless torture began again.

Beyond relying on the police, the only other attempt at any sort of diffusing, took place at Titusville’s historic courthouse. All adults involved in the dispute made requests for restraining orders against each other. These requests were soundly denied by the judge, and the feuding neighbors left the courthouse more frustrated than ever.

One week after the judge’s denial of any restraining orders, Billy Woodward came up with his own plan to end the feud. In the middle of the night on Labor Day 2012, Woodward crawled out of his house and hunted the three men behind the bullying.  In a matter of minutes two men, Gary Hembree and Roger Picior, had been shot to death and a third, Tim Blake, was left fighting for his life.

Could mediation have diffused the anger and torment that tore through this neighborhood? Would a restraining order from the Titusville judge have helped to calm the feud? Could the police have done anything more to bring calm to the neighbors?  Mediation works most efficaciously when the people involved in the dispute actively seek peace.  If any of the neighbors had attempted to make a plan for resolution, or had discussed a cooling down period, they may have been able to move in a positive direction. The ingredients for any possible peace did not seem to exist amongst these neighbors, and, as one Brevard County Sheriff’s deputy stated—”sometimes there is nothing you can do, sometimes things just happen.”

I, myself, have a prickly unresolvable relationship with a neighbor on one side of my sanctuary. Keeping the Sheriff’s statement in mind, I choose to put my ego aside, ignore the nastiness, and avoid contact of any kind. We once happened to walk to the curb of our properties at the same time. Side by side, we strode in weighted silence, not acknowledging each other on any level whatsoever. It was uncomfortable, but necessary. Like the Spencers, I’m doing my part to prevent those things that just happen.

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