You and your neighbor are not getting along. Maybe the neighbor is playing loud music, engaging in disruptive construction, or being generally rude to you and your family. Maybe the neighbor damaged your property or has refused to pay you money owed, for example for shared fence repairs.
As you probably know, not all disputes are best resolved by litigation (going to court). Indeed, suing your neighbor might not be the best way of getting what you want.
Sometimes, mediation is a far better way to resolve a neighbor dispute. Mediation is essentially a conversation between you and your neighbor that is led by a third-party, neutral mediator. This mediator generally has a background in law, social services, and/or psychology, and has no personal bias towards either of you. The mediator’s role is to listen to both you and your neighbor, identify the key issues and sources of conflict, and help generate momentum towards compromise, settlement, and mutual understanding.
Even mediation costs money, however, and takes time and planning. So, is mediation really worth the time and effort? It’s very possible that you could resolve a conflict without running to a professional mediator. You and your neighbor are both grown adults, perhaps with ample professional and life experience. You've no doubt both had conflicts with others in the past, and have probably solved those conflicts the old-fashioned way: by talking. Many neighbor disputes are no different than those with family, friends, and coworkers, even if they sometimes involve more legal issues, like property rights or boundary disputes.
If you and your neighbor are having conflict and tension, chances are, the neighbor recognizes it too. Approach your neighbor. See whether he or she is amenable to talking through the issues. You might suggest the discussion in a friendly, non-hostile way, asking the neighbor over to your house for tea or to a Starbucks.
Once you begin a discussion, work towards identifying the main issues of dispute and then, one by one, see if you can resolve them. Remember that you might perceive very different areas of dispute than your neighbor does.
Having this sort of conversation might be best in situations where you and your neighbor have very specific, concrete issues to work out – for example, whether the neighbor owes you a certain amount of money, or whether your plants are encroaching on the neighbor’s property. A conversation might also be sufficient when the two of you will not be living next to one another for very long. For example, if your lease is up next month, perhaps a quick discussion is all that you need to put a band-aid on the problem.
Why would you want a professional mediator? Consider the nature of the relationship. If you expect to have this person in your life for many years to come – for example, if you both own your homes and have no plans of leaving the area – mediation might be a sensible way to clear the air and establish healthier means of communication over the long-term.
Good mediators will not only help you resolve the specific issues confronting you – such as the money owed or the location of your boundary line-- they will also dig at the underlying issues, and try to address unspoken tensions. The process is perhaps more emotional than the basic conversation the two of you might have alone, but it often results in a stronger relationship going forward.
Cost isn’t necessarily a factor in your decision about whether or not you need a professional mediator. Many nonprofit organizations and court systems will actually offer mediation services at no cost. These organizations will provide meeting rooms as well, making the process fairly seamless.
If you do decide that mediation is the way to go, don’t go into the process unprepared. It is important to go into the mediation session with a firm grasp of your “side of the story” (the relevant dates and facts) as well as a strong sense of what outcomes you are looking for: Do you want money? Do you want your neighbor to stop doing or start doing something? Do you just want your neighbor to be cordial? And finally, you should also into the session thinking about what you might be willing to compromise, financially or otherwise.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to negotiate or mediate is between you and your neighbor. Participating in mediation is entirely voluntary, and might be unnecessary depending on the type of dispute and the nature of your relationship. But sometimes, it can be an effective means of breaking through impasse and strengthening communication patterns to create a healthier long-term rapport.