Joseph Grenny is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I live in a very nice, quiet, upscale suburban neighborhood. A new family recently moved into one of the homes and is doing some things that distract from the value of the neighborhood. We have covenants that restrict what is permitted, but enforcing them could be difficult and possibly costly. How can I approach my neighbors personally and express my concerns without making an enemy out of them?
Not in My Backyard
This will be the shortest answer I’ve ever written. Not because the issue isn’t crucial, but because your options are limited. I say this because I feel your pain!
With that said, here’s how I would approach this situation.
Talk to the right person. If you have a Home Owner’s Association, the association should inform your neighbor of the rules and the penalties for breaking these rules. They should then hold your neighbor accountable. If they aren’t doing this, your conversation should be with the association.
Do your research. You mentioned that your community has covenants, but you need to be sure the covenants are in force. Just because they are in the original neighborhood documents doesn’t mean they’ve been enforced over time. And if they have not been enforced, they may have no legal validity today.
Build the relationship first. If possible, you should build a relationship with your neighbor before you confront him or her about his or her distracting behavior. If your first conversation with the neighbor is about his or her transgression, it will be harder to create safety. To the degree you can help your neighbor unpack boxes, mow his or her lawn, or provide any other kind of assistance, he or she will be less likely to hear your concerns as attacks and characterize you as an enemy and more likely to actually change his or her behavior.
Be direct and polite. If there is no enforcement body and it’s up to you to speak up, then do so. But work on your story first. See them as reasonable people with different habits and perhaps no understanding of your covenants. Do whatever it takes to feel respectful and caring toward them before opening your mouth. Be friendly and polite, but don’t water down your message. If your bottom line is that this is a rule and they have to follow it, say that. For example, “Hey Pat, there’s a goofy thing in our covenants that you may not know about. Trust me, this isn’t a persnickety neighborhood and we’re glad you’re here, but I thought I should let you know before you get too settled so you’ll know how to address it . . .”
Finally, you should decide if this is important enough to you to deal with legally should they refuse to comply—or whether after your attempt at a crucial conversation you prefer to let it slide.
Good luck with your conversation. I’d tell you about mine but I worry about 140,000 of my closest friends finding out!