The Sunday Magazine

How community mediators help keep the peace between feuding neighbours

Poet Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbours,” and it seems the corollary is true, that bad fences can make bad neighbours, especially in an age when neighbours are less likely to know, and talk to, each other. Some Canadian cities offer the services of a free community mediator, a volunteer who steps in to help resolve conflicts.
Community mediators intervene in many different kinds of neighbourhood disputes, such as those over barking dogs. (Nick Ut/AP Photo)

The dog next door won't stop barking. A fence is encroaching on your property line. The house next door has turned into "Party Central" every weekend. How to fix the situation?

It seems fewer of us know our neighbours these days and are hesitant to have a one-on-one conversation about a problem. Some Canadian cities have volunteer community mediators who step in to help resolve these kinds of conflicts.

(Submitted by Rukiya Mohamed)

Communication breakdown is at the heart of most disputes, according to Jasmine Schulz of Mediation Services Winnipeg and Rukiya Mohamed of Community Mediation Ottawa. They told Sunday Edition host Michael Enright that many people hesitate to speak directly with a neighbour about a problem, even though that is usually the most respectful way to broach it.

Disputes in condo buildings can be even more fraught.

"There's no real escape," said Schulz. "You exit your front door and they might be exiting their front door, and that's just so much closer when you're in a condo."

The different circumstances of residents may also play a role says Mohamed because "maybe one person is the owner of their condo and the other person is a renter … there is that added factor of the mixed owner-renter dynamic."

Usually, one party to the dispute calls the mediation service and provides details on an application form. The mediator will question that person first, then will get in touch with the other party.

"We usually don't start with the word 'complaint,'" said Schulz. "People tend to get pretty triggered, easily."

Instead, the second party is asked for their perspective on the situation. Often this reveals other things have happened in the relationship that contributed to the problem.

"I'm just trying to peel the onion, as I call it sometimes, to see what's really at the heart of it," said Mohamed.

Both mediators say it can be highly satisfying to see both sides in a dispute respond when they are encouraged to listen and to understand the other person's point of view.

(Submitted by Jasmine Schulz)

Schulz recalled one particularly challenging session between neighbours who shared a wall. The stated concerns were over the heating system and lawn care, however it quickly became apparent that the connection between the neighbours was a key factor in the conflict. They had been in a romantic relationship.

"If you want to talk about history causing complications for a relationship, there's one right there," said Schulz. "Oh man, that was difficult."

It is up to the parties to come up with a solution to their problem, says Mohamed.

"We're just there to facilitate the conversation," she said. "I oftentimes remind the parties of that, saying things like, 'When I leave this room it's not me who's your neighbour. It's your situation, it's your conflict.'"

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 

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