When it comes to living in close proximity with others, conflict is inevitable. It’s not always the big things that lead to the biggest conflicts either, over time even the smallest of issues can explode into a huge fight.
“The sources of conflicts are generally things like noise, odor and pet complaints. The most common are noise complaints, and they are the most difficult ones,” says Michael P. Graff, a mediator with the New York City Bar Association’s Co-op and Condo Mediation Project, and principal of Graff Law Offices.
It’s not only noise complaints. Arguments over whose responsibility it is to maintain and repair common areas, and if it should be done or not, also turn into conflict. Dealing with such conflicts in association housing, be it a co-op or condo, is inevitable, but there are ways to help manage and defuse conflict.
“Most of the times these cases are litigated, but that’s wrong. They should be mediated because litigation just adds to the fees and mediation is private, confidential and fast,” says Graff.
There are a few different organizations that offer mediation services in New York City. One of which is the New York City Bar, but another is the New York Peace Institute, which offers free mediation services.
Can't We Just All Get Along?
“Typically what happens is someone, from say, a co-op board, will email us or give us a call and say something like, ‘Our co-op board is a nightmare, people aren’t getting along,’ or, ‘There’s a disrupter on the board and we’re not on the same page,’ and either we will reach out to the other parties, or they will, and we have case managers who will help set up a convenient time. We will typically mediate these cases in our Brooklyn or Manhattan office, or if they have a space we’ll do it there,” says Brad Heckman, the chief executive officer of the New York Peace Institute.
No matter who you get the process generally lasts two to four hours at the most.
“Sometimes they can take longer but usually a normal case would take two to four hours,” says Graff.
Getting both sides to agree to mediation can be an ordeal all its own and can often take longer than the actual mediation itself. But once both sides are in the same room, the conversation can begin.
“In that initial conversation it may play out a couple of different ways. It may be that it’s not the whole co-op board that has issues; it might just be two individuals. So in cases like that we would provide the opportunity for those two individuals to have a conversation,” says Heckman.
Each person gives their view of what’s going on, like an informal conversation, asking questions and brainstorming ways to work together.
“Try to get the people to look at each other as neighbors. There’s always going to be some compromise when living in association with others,” says Graff.
“In many conflicts things are not what they seem,” says Heckman. “Many of these conflicts come from a lack of clarity as to what the actual rules are, on how to interpret the bylaws.”
Once the mediation begins, it’s all about making sure everyone feels like they are heard. One way the mediators do that is by repeating back what they’ve heard and asking open-ended questions so they can get to the root of the issue, which are things that can also be done outside of mediation. At times, if things escalate, the mediators will honor that escalation and allow people to vent to a degree so that everything can come to the surface.
“These are confidential conversations, so we’re bound by law to keep these conversations confidential,” says Heckman.
So if there is a lawsuit later on, what happens in mediation will stay there and won’t get dragged out into the courtroom.
The process is about finding common ground and agreement, so if the parties want they could request a written agreement but more often than not it just ends with a verbal one.
At the end of the day, “They’re neighbors and at the end of the day they’re going to meet each other in the elevators or in the lobby and they want to be able to smile and say hi and that’s important,” says Graff.
For more information about the mediation project, contact the New York City Bar Association's Jenneth Grullon at 212-382-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For the New York Peace Institute, contact them at 718-834-6671 (Brooklyn Mediation Center) or 212-577-1740 (Manhattan Mediation Center).
John Zurz is a staff writer at The Cooperator.