Several years ago, before relocating to Westchester County, I served as board president at my 112-unit co-op building in Manhattan. Like most co-ops, we had a history of occasional disputes between tenants and among board members. But, by using the subtle art of mediation, we were able to resolve these invariable disagreements to the satisfaction of all involved.
A classic dispute that occurred while I was board president involved late night stereo playing. These complaints, which began as hallway skirmishes, soon were directed to the managing agent, who sent the usual letter citing the house rules regarding noise. Not surprisingly, nothing happened. In fact, the music aficionado soon went so far as to contact a City Council member and threaten a bias suit against the co-op. Meanwhile, the light sleeper (after verbally threatening his neighbor) contacted the police and prepared to file an unwarranted harassment suit. Clearly, things were getting out of hand.
A Non-Confrontational Approach
As board president, I decided this dispute would best be dealt with personally, so I asked both parties if they would meet with me to see if we couldn't diffuse the situation. The two neighbors were more than willingeach was eager to point out the other's misdeeds and to seek justice from the board. During our meeting I listened intently, letting each party speak his mind and elaborate on his side of the story. The complainant told of having to go to bed by 10:00 p.m. in order to be alert at an early-morning job. The respondent told of getting home late from work and winding down, as quietly as possible, until 1:00 a.m. I learned that the early riser had first complained about the stereo using the age-old method of pounding on the wall. Naturally, with this form of communication setting the tone, things had quickly devolved from there.
After listening to both sides, I asked to hear a demonstration of the noise levels. It turned out that the speakers in the respondent's apartment could be heard, through the wall, in the complainant's bedroom. Both agreed that, while the noise level inside the respondent's apartment was not unreasonable, the bedside boom was not conducive to sleeping. After clearly defining the problem, and examining the facts, I then asked each neighbor for suggestions. The final agreement included moving the speakers, keeping the stereo at a pre-determined level after 10:00 p.m., dropping all accusations of harassment, and pledging that any future complaints be made in person. This meant no more banging on the walls or snide remarks in the hallway. Finally, if all else failed, they agreed to sit down again with a board member before things got out of hand.
These neighbors never had any further problems. The meeting was so succesful because no one had been found to be in the wrong. Instead, I had helped the contentious parties examine the essence of the problemnoise versus sleepand to devise a mutually agreeable solution, rather than continuing to nurture what had become a personal vendetta. Though I did not know it then, I had just mediated a dispute.