Angie’s List Magazine (June 2016) features a cover story on “the people who drive you crazy”, that is, Nightmare Neighbors, a category comprising several sub-types: the Oblivious Neighbor, the Overachiever, the Neighborhood Mayor, the Do-Littles, and the Security Seeker. Very cute and pretty spot on.
The problem, of course, is what to do about nightmare neighbors — or, more to the point, about the things they do that drive you crazy. Angie Hicks, the founder of Angie’s List, suggests that you talk to your neighbors. In doing so, she counsels, you can build relationships and community.
Excellent suggestions, as far as they go. But as Angie acknowledges, they don’t go very far: “I’ll leave the How-Tos to you. Happy knocking!”
Easier said than done! Imagine calling on your neighbor to say, “Hi. Just thought I’d let you know that you are a Nightmare Neighbor, specifically a Do Little. Your yard is a mess! Can’t you keep your lawn mowed? What’s the matter with you people?” To be fair to Angie, she isn’t suggesting such an approach, but the fact is that even a gentle face-to-face conversation can quickly go awry. No one enjoys being called out on their behavior and even the most careful approach may get your neighbors’ backs up. You can’t control the defensiveness of your neighbors’ reaction no matter how sweetly you ask them to change their annoying ways. And, even if they don’t take offense, unless their conduct is illegal, you simply can’t force your neighbors to do as you would have them do.
How best to persuade your neighbors to make some changes without making an enemy for life? One way is through skillful, non-violent, and non-defensive communication. The idea is to make value-free observations without judgment (“the music didn’t wind down at your pool party last Friday until 2 am” or “I notice that you sometimes leave your trash cans on the curb all week”) and then state your needs clearly (“I couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30 and needed to get up by 7 am the next morning” or “I can see the bins from my front window and, from my perspective, they spoil my view of the street”) and, finally, express a clear and concrete request (“Would you be willing to close down the music by 10 pm?” or “Would you be willing to store the trash bins in the rear of your property after the trash is picked up?”).
Nice. You’ve kept your side of the street clean. You haven’t insulted your neighbors. You haven’t diagnosed them or made judgments about them. You’ve identified the problem as one of your own needs not being met and you’ve asked them to take specific actions to alleviate your problem. So far so good.
The difficulty, of course, is that your neighbor may well decline your request, no matter how respectfully you make it. They may dispute the facts. They may not share your views on what’s important and what’s intolerable. What then?
Bargain. Acknowledge that they see things differently. Acknowledge their interests in doing things the way they do them. And then explore what your neighbors might be willing to do to meet your needs. If the neighbors refuse to negotiate, you can gently introduce the idea of consequences if there are laws on your side (“I think we have a noise ordinance that prohibits any amplified outdoor music without a permit”). But if there is no realistic likelihood that outside pressure can be brought to bear on your neighbors and your neighbors refuse to budge, then you must be prepared to take the denial of your request graciously.
When you and your neighbors have been discussing a pressing issue over a long period of time without making progress (e.g., whether to replace the roof on your conjoined townhouses or replace a connecting water pipe from the street to your properties), then it may be useful to engage a facilitator or mediator help get the conversation back on track moving towards a resolution of your differences — without destroying your relationship.