Keep The Peace: How To Resolve Conflicts And Build Better Relations With Your Neighbour

A little bit of conflict now and then is unavoidable. Here’s how to butt heads the better way

Matthew Halliday with Ishani Nandi Updated: Jan 16, 2020 15:53:03 IST
Keep The Peace: How To Resolve Conflicts And Build Better Relations With Your Neighbour Illustration by Kaley McKean

The complaints began a few months after Frances* moved into her new apartment. Last year, the health-care worker and her room-mate began receiving messages from the building’s concierge, passed on from the woman living in the unit below—they were too noisy, moved chairs too often and their guests were too rambunctious.

To Frances, the noises were part of everyday living. Her room-mate was an acknowledged klutz, who tended to drop things. Friends’ children occasionally visited and ran around. “It was frustrating,” says Frances. “Anything we did caused her to complain—and she owns and we rent, so if we couldn’t solve it, we assumed it was us who would have to move.” To make matters worse, Frances and her neighbour couldn’t talk to each other. The key fobs for their building allowed access only to their own floors. Though they lived just metres apart, they had no way to reach out and bridge their divide—across which Frances could feel bad feelings swelling. “When you don’t know the person, you expect the worst,” says Frances. “We thought this neighbour hated us.” Conflict is inevitable, and it often occurs between people who can’t just walk out of each other’s lives. Fortunately, there are many ways to navigate life’s disagreements, large and small, without boiling over.

Don’t make assumptions

Frances had no way to know what her neighbour was thinking or what she was like, so she found it easy to presume the worst. Social psychologists call it ‘fundamental attribution error’, the act of believing that what a person does reflects their essential character. “If we experience something as being negative in terms of the effect it has on us, we automatically assume negative intent on the other person’s part,” explains Sue Wazny, a Vancouver-based conflict mediator and consultant. And that can create a spiral of conflict without end. If a colleague makes a paperwork mistake, we think they’re lazy, when they might just be overworked. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we assume they’re careless, rather than potentially dealing with an emergency.

Says Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, Gurugram-based psychotherapist and founder of a counselling and coaching services platform, “Conflict arises when one party feels wronged, misunderstood and taken advantage of. Changing perspectives by walking in their shoes can help de-escalate things. The target of your anger may be harbouring pain or rage about something, just as any of us might. Pause and seek first to understand and empathize and you may find yourself reassessing the intensity of the conflict.”Adds Wazny, “Ask yourself, ‘How much of this is me feeling persecuted, and how much is likely to be a true reflection of the other person’s motives?’. Don’t act like you know what’s driving that person. Act like you don’t, because that’s probably the case.”

Be curious

Of course, many of the thorniest disputes occur when we do know how someone really feels and we disagree, especially about deeply held beliefs. A chat with your neighbour about an upcoming election can uncover a difference of values, or a political protest passing by your office window could lead to some heated arguments at work.According to Cheryl Picard, emeritus professor at Carlton University and founding director of the school’s Centre for Conflict Education and Research, “If you threaten my values,” she says, “I’m not listening to what you have to say, because my entire focus is on defending what I value.”

Balasundaram suggests that during such clashes, control the impulse to force your world view to bear. “Don’t fall for the need to be right and have the last word! We need to be conscious of the fact that there is always more than one perspective. Trying to coerce, threaten or emotionally blackmail people into accepting your way as the only truth, can wreck relationships.” Instead, ask questions about what it is that is threatening to the other person’s beliefs, says Wazny. Bringing to light these underlying fears can establish more understanding. This tactic, which Picard calls the “insight approach”, is not about winning. “I don’t create any fuel that requires us to defend our positions,” she says. “And I have the possibility of learning something I didn’t know.”

Curb the rage response

It might sound simplistic, but taking a deep breath or writing down what you feel instead of engaging in an argument really can help. “Identifying triggers that lead to an aggressive response is the first step,” says Dr Rachna Singh, a lifestyle coach and psychologist at Delhi’s Artemis Hospital. “Keeping a journal on negative experiences can help identify intricate patterns and triggers. It is necessary to express negative emotions instead of directing them at others or repressing them.”

Physiological responses follow emotional responses, says Wazny, and when we become agitated, we enter a fight-or-flight mode. Extreme physical responses can be especially common between bickering neighbours. Petty disputes grow until someone angrily knocks on the neighbour’s door or verbally accosts another in the driveway. When people are attacked that way they shut down and become defensive. The best way to prevent extreme reactions is to make a concerted effort to know something about those around you before issues arise. “They’re not a villain then. They can still annoy you, but you have a more reasonable under-standing of each other to work from,” says Wazny.

As Frances and her neighbour learnt, bridging that simple divide can work wonders. As the complaints from downstairs mounted, the building manager brought in mediators. As soon as the two women made eye contact for the first time, things started changing. Frances agreed to some changes—replacing heavy chairs with lighter ones—but most importantly, the two women exchanged contact information. If unexpected noise occurred, the neighbour said she’d call Frances before making any complaints.After the meeting, Frances messaged the neighbour to thank her for the meeting. “She wrote a really lovely message back,” says Frances. “She understood we weren’t doing it on purpose, and I realized that of course this person I’d never met does not hate me and isn’t out to get me. It was amazing—and such a relief.”


*Name has been changed.
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