Expert Source: Angela Clarke, PhD, clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Unless you live in an isolated cabin in the woods or a cave in the desert, you probably have neighbors. If you’re lucky, they’re friends — or, at the very least, neutral presences. If you’re less fortunate, you live beside the chatterbox who appears whenever you’re rushing to work. Or the house that vibrates with party noise late into the night. Perhaps a yard overgrown with weeds that creep over the property line. The list of unwelcome neighbor traits is long.
Still, what counts as a bad neighbor isn’t universal. For some, the chatterbox is welcome company, the overgrown yard, blissfully free of pesticides. No specific situation causes problems for everyone, but stress arises for most of us when we have conflicts with a neighbor we didn’t choose — and can’t easily escape.
Figuring out how to proceed can be challenging, given your close proximity: Is the issue big enough to address? Is it worth the risk of creating greater resentment? What if your neighbor takes offense at your request? What if your efforts don’t solve the problem?
Clinical psychologist Angela Clarke, PhD, suggests ways to sort out conflicting values with an imperfect neighbor — and maybe even stay on good terms.
Challenges to Overcome
- Conflict aversion. If you typically avoid confrontation, you’ll likely feel more stress, Clarke says. “The neighbor conflict may reflect past conflicts . . . that you’d rather not revisit,” she points out. “Now you’re faced with the problem of living right next door to someone who is a source of tension — and that can be really challenging.”
- Fear. For many of us, any conversation that involves critiquing another person can create fear. We might worry about hurting someone’s feelings or experience full-blown anxiety symptoms if the situation triggers past trauma. “Even anticipating approaching the neighbor can bring about anxiety symptoms,” Clarke notes.
- Confusion about the approach. Finding the best way to raise an issue with your neighbor can be tricky. What’s the best way to initiate the conversation? How do you speak firmly enough to convey your concern without triggering a defensive response?
- Self-doubt. You may be hesitant to deal with a difficult neighbor if part of you feels you’re overreacting. “You may ask yourself, ‘Am I reading too much into this?’ ” Clarke says. “You start to question yourself, particularly if it’s a nice neighbor who has no idea that what he or she is doing is a disturbance.” You may be especially conflicted if the problem doesn’t appear to bother other neighbors — or if your partner minimizes it.
- Difficult history. If your neighbor has been loudly belligerent or quietly hostile during previous encounters, you may be avoiding a renewed confrontation. You might also feel so angry that you’re sure you’ll blow up during any conversation and ruin the chances for a peaceful settlement.
- Failed attempts. If you’ve talked to your neighbor and he or she has already agreed to correct the situation but hasn’t, you might feel the situation is hopeless. Resigned frustration may seem like your only option.
Strategies for Success
- Speak face-to-face. Clarke discourages the use of notes, texts, or third parties to convey your message. “Trying to avoid the face-to-face conversation with the person can lead to more problems,” she says, “since you can’t be sure the note will be read or your points will get across.”
- Write it down and rehearse. Writing does have its uses, however. “If you’re really apprehensive, practice what you want to say first,” she suggests. Write your points down and then role-play with someone you trust, preferably someone who knows your neighbor and can respond as he or she might.
- Keep your cool. Check in with your own emotional state before you approach your neighbor. Feeling apprehensive is normal, Clarke says, but anger is counterproductive. “Never approach the neighbor when you’re wound up. If you are, postpone the conversation.” (See our “5 Tips to Stay Cool Under Pressure“.)
- Use I-statements. You may be tempted to bolster your position with blanket statements like, “Your smoking bugs everybody,” but Clarke suggests speaking only for yourself. I-statements — for example, “I’m quite sensitive to your cigarette smoke” — not only avoid escalating an encounter; they’re all but impossible to debate.
- Make suggestions for a resolution. “People often want to vent and put all the responsibility on the neighbor,” she notes, but a more productive approach is to come up with a plan for you both: Your neighbor agrees to give you advance notice about parties; you agree to relocate for the evening.
- Ask about your own behavior. After you make your points, says Clarke, “ask if there’s anything you can do differently to make his or her life easier.” This can end your conversation on a positive note. You may also learn some surprising things about your own role in the difficulty, which is good news. It’s always easier to change your own behavior than someone else’s.
- Be kind and be persistent. If your initial conversation doesn’t bring changes, use the same principles during a second one: Rehearse your points, be calm in your approach, use I-statements, offer solutions. If there’s still no change, speak to the appropriate housing authorities, if one is available — apartment manager, landlord, homeowners’ association — before calling the police. The legal website Nolo (www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/neighbor-disputes) has suggestions for further actions, if necessary.
- Be willing to consider a move. There comes a time to accept what you cannot change. If none of these strategies makes a dent and your neighbor conflict is dire, it may be time to consider relocating. The short-term stress of moving will likely be less harmful than endless strife.
This appeared as “Bad-Neighbor Blues” in the May 2017 print issue of Experience Life.