Why Don’t People Talk to Each Other?

At Jefferson County Mediation Services (JCMS), we offer free mediation to help people resolve conflicts with each other.  (A mediator is a neutral person trained to help people talk about things without giving opinions or advocating for either side.)

Conflicts may occur for many reasons, but for any conflict, the question can be asked:

“Why don’t these people just approach each other for a conversation?”

Over the nearly twenty-two years JCMS has served as a Community Mediation program, our staff and volunteers have heard many answers to this question.  Because neighbors lead fast-paced lives and don’t see each other over the back fence anymore, they imagine all sorts of motives and characteristics about their neighbors.  Here are some of them:

Insanity: “Those people are crazy!”  (Or alcoholics or drug addicts).

Evil intent:  “They want to see me arrested!”

Unreasonableness: “They’ll never agree to anything, so what’s the point?”

Belief in the law:  “They need a judge to tell them what to do!”

Unreliability:  “They’d never keep any agreement we make.”

Biased assumptions: “People like that can’t be reasoned with!”

Ageism:  Those old (or young) people just don’t understand me!”

Unfounded beliefs: “I know _________ about those people.” (Often, what is “known” isn’t true.)

Common cause with other neighbors: “Everyone thinks they’re troublemakers!”

Fear: “For all I know, if I complain he’d kill me!”

 

The list goes on – these are really just a few of the things we hear.  All of them are given as reasons not to take that step and walk next door to have a talk.

 

Other factors also come into play.  Most people don’t like to face conflict with others head on.  (This is called conflict avoidance.)  The idea that someone in authority will reinforce their position can be very attractive.   There is a hope that the authorities can serve as a buffer – that if contacted “the authorities” will deal with the problem.  This strategy typically overestimates the power and effectiveness of “the authorities.”

People say: “It’s not legal for their dogs to bark, so I’ll call Animal Control, Animal Control will give them a ticket, and the dogs will have to shut up.”  This greatly overestimates the power and day-to-day effectiveness of authorities such as Animal Control.  The truth is, dogs are not good at reading tickets. If the dog owner pays the ticket, the result is often that the dogs are still barking, and now your neighbor, the dog owner, is mad at you

It takes effort to walk next door and confront somebody.  It’s much easier to try to ignore the problem (until you get really angry), retaliate (make your own noise), or pick up the phone and contact “the authorities.”  But none of these strategies is a very good long-term solution.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so tough to get people to talk to each other, but it is.  JCMS schedules hundreds of mediation sessions each year.  The mediators serve as a buffer and create a safe environment to talk. If people could talk to each other on their own, we might do fewer mediations, but we wouldn’t mind.