The Subtle Art of Mediation Solving Disputes Between Residents

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.

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4 Comments

  • This sounds like a heavenly solution. But what if one of the two parties involved in the dispute is a whack job? it sounds like you had two fairly reaonable people with different needs that were met through mediaton. We have an ongoing noise problem from a shareholder's live in boyfriend that threatens to call the police for harassment if certain neigbors ask him to turn down his bass or stop banging a metal chain against his front door at 3 a.m. Do you think mediation would work here or is contacting the community police a better idea? Thanks, RL
  • Sadly HOA boards and mediators don't get that some neighbors are sociopaths. These are the ones with little conscience, use deceipt and manipulation, and are able to charm people. Perhaps not legal criminals, but victimizers nonetheless. Tons of research on these people. Even the legal system can't recognize them.
  • Board President Mitchell Lama on Friday, December 9, 2011 7:03 PM
    Unfortunately there are some shareholders that bleieve that are 'entitled' to do pretty much whatever they choose. In addition, these same ones are usually loud, aggressive to the point of being threatening. The other shareholders are quiet, unassuming and non-confrontational. The loud ones try to 'eat up' the quiet ones. The quiet ones usually end up suffering in silence. It is in this type of situation that the Board President has to take a stand in support of the quiet ones. Anything less and the loud ones 'take over'. Sometimes it requires legal remedies to obtain a just solution.
  • If only my board would speak with shareholders. I have had issues with the board's procedures which directly impacted me and yet there was no opportunity to 'present myself and my issues' to the board. They continued to do what they wanted without conversing with me. In one case, I took them to small claims court about charges they were illegally adding to my bill (totally unbased as the judge determined). In another I had to contact a NYC commission in order to define what the law says which is contrary to what the board decided. Open conversations with the board and shareholders should be written into the coop board's requirements. As a shareholder in IBM, I have a voice. Here I have none.