Dear Crucial Skills,
My puppy was brutally attacked by our neighbor’s pit bull.
My pup survived, but I soon learned from other neighbors that this was the fifth attack in the neighborhood by this pit bull. I decided to press charges in hopes of improving neighborhood safety.
This did not make the pit bull’s owner happy. The owner, by the way, is mentally ill—he has PTSD from his military service in Afghanistan. He’s also antisocial and unable to detect social cues about appropriate behavior. He carries a handgun on his waist. He will not even look at me.
The court proceedings included a no-contact order, so I haven’t talked with my neighbor. But recently the case was dismissed. I’d now like to talk with him and resolve the tension, but not sure how to start. How do you have a Crucial Conversation with someone who doesn’t want to? And should you if it might be dangerous?
Dear Nervous Neighbor,
I’m reminded of what’s often called “unrequited love.”
I recently finished reading a novel in which a young man is hopelessly in love with a woman who has no interest. Not only is she uninterested, she’s in love with someone else. The man makes every effort to convey his feelings, to treat her kindly, but to no avail. His sincerest efforts cannot earn him attention from the woman of his dreams.
Why should I compare your situation to love? Because in both love and strife it takes two to tango. In other words, you need a willing party with which to converse if you hope to resolve conflict.
So, can you get your neighbor to become a willing party? Maybe. But your success will depend less on what you say to him and more on what you say to yourself.
First, check your story. You describe your neighbor as antisocial, unable to detect social cues, and as having PTSD. Perhaps you’ve drawn these conclusions from neighborhood gossip or from your own observations. Regardless, they will color your interaction.
Are there other possible explanations for his behavior, or other ways of thinking about it? Imagine how differently you’d approach someone if you thought of them as introverted rather than antisocial, or as a veteran rather than as someone with PTSD. Small shifts in the stories we tell ourselves can radically alter our behavior.
Second, check your motives. Years ago I started a business with a friend, and within a year we were estranged. I went to the warehouse one day to pick up product and found the locks had been changed. When I tried to call my friend, he wouldn’t answer. A mutual friend had to mediate and settle a dispute between us.
The business partner-friend moved to another state, several months passed. At first I felt victimized and vindicated for all my ill feelings. But in time, and through much reflection, I was able to appreciate why my friend had taken the course of action he had.
One night while out jogging I bumped into him. He was in town and happened to be on my neighbor’s porch visiting. I gathered my thoughts, walked up, apologized, asked for forgiveness, and extended my right hand. I no longer wanted to defend or accuse or debate or question, I wanted to reconcile.
He shook my hand and also apologized. Our exchange lasted sixty seconds, but in that short span a burden was lifted from me, and I gather from him too.
I think if I had had any motive other than to apologize in that moment, the interaction wouldn’t have gone smoothly. What I’m saying is this: motive can make the difference. So, why do you want to talk with your neighbor? Do you want to hold him responsible, explain your decision to press charges, preserve a neighborhood reputation?
I’m not suggesting those are your motives but rather encouraging you to look inward. Your motive will speak louder than the words you say.
Finally, consider letting go. I understand the desire to resolve tension whenever it arises, with whomever it arises. But I’ve also found that most of the interpersonal problems I face are merely problems of perspective. They almost always go away when I let go. In other words, when I stop thinking of the other person as a problem, I no longer experience a problem.
There’s an edict in every book of wisdom I’ve read, and it’s implicit in Crucial Conversations, which says this: Change what you want to when you can, and when you can’t, accept it. That is not a euphemism for acquiescing. It’s a marker of responsibility. Learning to accept those unchangeable aspects of life we’d rather not, including other people, is necessary for personal growth.
It may turn out that you can’t connect with your neighbor. I’ve given you a couple of suggestions that will increase your odds should you try. If they don’t work, you may need to work on accepting things as they are.
I’m very sorry to hear about your puppy, but glad to hear it survived. I hope these suggestions help you find some measure of the peace and resolution you seek.