Having uncomfortable conversations in condos

How mediation concepts can help pave the way for constructive next steps
Thursday, September 7, 2017
By Marc Bhalla

It can be tempting not to have a difficult discussion. Even though an uncomfortable situation will almost always persist — or even worsen — if nothing is done to address it, the discomfort, anxiety and stress associated with speaking about an issue can make procrastination a very attractive option.

This is especially the case in the condominium environment as directors, property managers and residents often hesitate when they first face the potential of having a hard conversation. It can seem easier to send an e-mail or template letter than to address a matter in person — in part, because best practices encourage record keeping — however, impersonal options often intensify rather than ease tensions and are rarely the best way to raise a concern.

There are many potential reasons why people avoid difficult discussions. A situation may pose emotional triggers or raise delicate subjects. There may be dread surrounding the reaction of the person on the other side of the discussion — he or she might get angry or react in a way that hurts an ongoing relationship. There may be uncertainty as to the outcome of bringing up the matter, and potential risk that doing so may not improve the situation but worsen it. To this end, the status quo may even offer a degree of comfort.

Mediation concepts apply to these types of considerations. In weighing whether or not to try to address an uncomfortable situation, a person often considers the different options that are available and goes with the choice that seems best.

Weighing the options

The option of doing nothing is typically only appealing for so long. Eventually, a person reaches a point where he or she no longer feels that a situation is tolerable or may somehow miraculously improve on its own.

Rather than agonizing over the unknown and getting lost in the world of what-ifs, spend some time reflecting on the situation. What makes it difficult, and what could improve it? What is known and unknown about a circumstance? Who is involved? What is the root of the issue?

Say, for example, a condominium resident is regularly annoyed by the loud barking of a neighbour’s dog. Perhaps the difficulty in addressing it is not wanting to be seen as a complainer and not wanting to risk upsetting the neighbour. There may even be fear that raising the issue may cause the neighbour to retaliate — perhaps making counter-complaints about noise.

A factor that may increase the difficulty of the situation is the forced ongoing relationship between neighbours — before, during and after the conflict. It may not be important for neighbours to be the best of friends, but developing friction can be quite uncomfortable. It could perhaps even get worse with each chance encounter, leading them to purposely try to avoid each other as they go about their business in and around their homes.

The thing is that the constant barking is annoying to the condo resident, increasingly so with each passing week. The resident’s mind turns to more extreme options, choices that would surely escalate the situation but seem more appealing as emotions rise with the negative impact on the enjoyment of his or her home.

Raising the issue

Think about the best strategy for raising an issue. Select the delivery, tone and approach of the message based on what is most likely to achieve the desired outcome. It’s possible to present the situation in a positive and encouraging way. One approach would be to gently express to a neighbour that his or her beloved pet can be heard from one’s own unit, and offering to work together to address the issue. Compare that to another approach, such as referring to the dog as an ugly, smelly, flea-infested nuisance who should move out at once.

That being said, it’s not possible to control another person’s reaction. In her “guide to conquering life,” YouTube sensation Lilly Singh illuminates this with a video game analogy. Specifically, she points out that video game players can only control their character — as opposed to other characters or circumstances in the game. Remembering this fact of life and thinking about the controllable aspects of a situation — one’s own behaviour — can productively complement a good communication strategy. Imagine the worst possible response and think through how to respond.

In many condominiums, everyone is a stranger. However, when neighbours are able to put names to faces, exchange pleasantries as they go about their business and otherwise get to know one another, it can be much easier to approach uncomfortable subject matter together. It is much easier to consider how best to approach a situation and reflect on the reality of the situation with a better understanding of those involved.

Planning and strategizing the best ways to approach a difficult discussion and to carry oneself, even when it may get emotional, can help answer when to address an awkward situation and lay the foundation for constructive next steps. Too often, people wait until a situation has gotten worse than it needed to be to find their voice and take active steps to address an issue. Communicating positively, earlier on, can often make these types of interactions far less painful.

Marc Bhalla holds the Chartered Mediator (C.Med) designation of the ADR Institute of Canada, the nation’s most senior designation available to practising mediators. He focuses his mediation practice on condominium conflict management. Marc leads the team and manages

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