Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Enforcing Neighborhood Rules

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.


Crucial ConfrontationsQDear 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

A  Dear 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!


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

19 thoughts on “Enforcing Neighborhood Rules”

  1. Eva

    We recently had a similar problem in our neighborhood. The nice new couple came with more cars than would fit in their garage so they parked the extras (some of which were collectible clunkers) in visitor parking. We did precisely what Joe suggested – made friends with them first, then told them how precious the visitor spaces were (on behalf of the Board), then teased them pointedly about their auto fleet. They cleaned out the garage, parked the clunkers in there, and promised to work on reducing their collection. And we’re all still friends.

  2. Kim Bolte

    Hi Joseph,

    I read this post with great interest because I have to deal with a barking dog problem. My neighbors to the North work at night and the dog barks constantly until they get home in the early morning.

    My first thought when I read: “Hey Pat, there’s a goofy thing in our covenants…” was… Well, if they are so goofy, what are you bringing them up for? Or Pat just might agree that they are goofy and not take them seriously.

    Kim Bolte

    PS: The dog and I have come to an agreement without involving the owners…he won’t bark and I won’t soak him with cold water at 1AM. I never even had to raise my voice;-)

  3. Steven Chamblee

    Wow. I love and benefit from the Crucial Skills newsletter, and this is the first time I’ve seen an answer that I felt was way off. How can one possibly go about the business of changing/altering/policing someone else’s behavior without the details of what the “offense” entails? I’ve seen busybody HOA folks get all bent out of shape when someone put a flower pot by the front door, planted a shrub that was deemed unworthy, and even when a child left a bicycle in the front yard. The first order of business should be to ask oneslef, “Why am I bothered by this?” You should probably follow up with a reflective, “Am I being an ass?” by getting worked up about it. You might even talk to some other neighbors to get their take on it. If the “offense” actually causes a problem, then I agree to proceed in a cordial manner, but to immediately assume the role of policing your neighbor’s behavior is nothing but pompous and arrogant.

  4. Emily

    Dear Joseph

    I’m writing to you as I was not sure where else I should comment. I just wanted to share my feedback on the crucial tip that is in bold on the left hand side of the latest newsletter.

    Addressing Annoying Behavior

    Do you find yourself putting up with your friends’ or coworkers’ annoying behavior? Do you avoid confronting them because you think the conversation will be awkward or because you don’t want to hurt their feelings?

    If you answered yes to either question, use the tips below:

    Limit the scope of the problem. Instead of airing a list of gripes, focus on the one issue you care about most.
    Be careful in your use of terms. Describe the problem using tentative language, then describe what the person is doing—not what you’re concluding.
    Share your good intentions. Make others feel safe by making it known that you have their best interest in mind.
    Keep the discussion private. This will help the other person feel safe talking to you and remedying the problem.
    Express concern and thanks. Remember that you care about the other person and want to help him or her address the issue without feeling humiliated in the process.

    My thought is that this helpful list of tips could be strengthened with the addition of another sentence, as follows:

    Remember you are not perfect. Remind your coworker that you realise you aren’t free from fault and encourage them to reciprocate the favour, by letting you know if/when they find your own behaviour annoying and an obstacle to building relationship, in order that you adapt as necessary and work better together.

    It could do with being a bit more concise, but I think its important part of the top tip not to give an impression of self righteousness. Also I think its helpful for us to remember to continue to remember check ourselves and ask – Why is it that that person’s behaviour is irritating to me? Sometimes the thing that creates friction in us about others is the thing that we have an unresolved issue within ourselves. Or, perhaps we are impatient with them and need to consider there may be a need to meet in the middle, where both people’s behaviour can be changed for the better!

    It would be great to hear yours or one of CS team’s thoughts about this suggested addition to the crucial tip!


  5. Paul Hebert

    Community mediation programs are often under-utilized and are set up to help people with difficult conversations. They also provide a safe place for practicing whatever crucial conversation skills you want. HOAs and other community structures exist often have a grievance process enumerated, but no direct support for the long view on neighborhood relations. Find out if your city or county has mediation services, and contact them. This is a good initial step, and also a good alternative if your first step doesn’t produce the result you hoped for.

  6. Sharon Campbell

    Steven Chamblee said: “…The first order of business should be to ask oneslef, “Why am I bothered by this?” You should probably follow up with a reflective, “Am I being an ass?” by getting worked up about it. You might even talk to some other neighbors to get their take on it. If the “offense” actually causes a problem, then I agree to proceed in a cordial manner, but to immediately assume the role of policing your neighbor’s behavior is nothing but pompous and arrogant.”

    Amen, Steven! My husband and I get in trouble with HOAs in just about 15 minutes; when we were relocating, we drove out to a place with the proud statement, “A Planned Community.” We did a U-turn and left. Many people think that HOAs somehow maintain property values, but when it causes people to do U-turns and go elsewhere, it may be time to rethink that concept. And we are NOT the only people who react this way. (Later, I found out that this particular “Planned community” objected to a resident’s choice of flower color in her yard and forced her to replant with a more congenial color. We might have beat our record on getting in trouble with them!)

  7. Melanie Prudom

    As a member of the Board of Directors of a HOA, Joseph’s first 2 steps are very appropriate. There are certainly written and unwritten guidelines for appropriate behavior. It is most helpful to clear up any misperceptions early in the solution process. The “why am I bothered” and “am I being an ass” questions get quickly answered.

    In our neighborhood, if someone is out of line with respect to a written rule, the Board sends a politely written warning letter in order to hold the resident accountable. But if they are not, at least we have a conversation about the situation and feel assured the relationship building can begin based on common ground. Generally, the Board is thankful for being made aware of situations.

  8. Sharon Campbell

    But what about when the HOA rules are asinine? Really, the flowers were the wrong color?

  9. Joseph Grenny

    Emily – I love that suggestion. It is a powerful way of ensuring others feel respected and don’t misunderstand our intent in sharing our concerns. When we open ourselves to reciprocal feedback they are more likely to understand that we are not communicating moral superiority and are not getting a cheap thrill at their expense.

  10. Joseph Grenny

    I agree with much of what has been said. For example, I agree that you should first be sure the problem is not YOU – if no one else is bothered then the problem might be your unreasonable expectations.
    However, if a) it is a substantive issue; and b) the HOA rules clearly require compliance – then you are well within your rights to expect others to comply. I think Sharon Campbell did the right thing above by doing a U-Turn when she saw an HOA sign if she and her family did not want to live in a place where others could offer opinions about their choices. But once you move in, you’ve signed up for the feedback! I don’t agree that if a rule is nitpicky that you should be able to ignore it once you have moved in and explicitly agreed to follow it.

  11. Sharon Campbell

    Actually, the problem with us and HOAs is that we, apparently foolishly, expect that the rules apply to the members of the Board as well as to us. And about the time someone tells me what color of flowers I can plant in my yard, well…. Opinions, ok. Orders on BS control items, absolutely not!

    1. Melanie Prudom

      Work with the Board to get the rules changed. Get involved! They would welcome your assistance.

  12. Melanie Prudom

    Really love what Emily said, too.

    @Sharon – In my experience, the HOA rules are almost worded loosely enough so in effect they are guidelines. It is often the interpretation and subsequent enforcement of said guidelines that gets tricky. A fully fuctional HOA should have consistent interpretation and enforcement. If not, then homeowners have to question who they elected onto the Board.

    Of course, you can always invoke the rule that changes the rules!

  13. Robin MacDonald

    One option that may be helpful is contacting the folks that do code enforcement in your jurisdiction. Codes vary, but nearly all jurisdictions have code enforcement. Success will depend a lot on what the unwanted situation is. You can usually get friendly information by calling the city, town or county where you reside.

  14. Sharon Campbell

    This wasn’t anything so tricky. I figure that if I cannot smoke in the elevator, neither should Board members! (Incidentally, this was a matter of Law as well.)Code Enforcement in New York City was not interested in such things. Sorry, but I lost my trusting nature after seeing in organization after organization where the Little Hitlers take over and the rest of the people just let them.

  15. Emily

    @Joseph Grenny
    Hi Joseph thanks for replying. Emily

  16. Eleanor Malloy

    Sharon Campbell :But what about when the HOA rules are asinine? Really, the flowers were the wrong color?

    @Sharon Campbell

    Sharon, what you do is get on the POA, and enlist as many of your neighbors who feel the same way you do as possible. Then you CHANGE the darn rules to something that makes sense. Our POA has basic, simple rules (except for not hanging your laundry outside, which I will break this summer).


  17. Sharon Bowers

    But what about when the covenants have not be enforced and the neighborhood has multiple violations. How does one legally stop the madness of a neighbor who just points their fingers at your property and not the others? Legally do I have recourse? I’m happy here, take care of the property etc. I have a small trailer – however, as of yesterday I counted 8 parked out front of various homes and yet, I’m the one with a certified letter. And No, they were not kind and come and speak to me about this. No, I’ve ever received any covenants to even see what violations are broken period. I am a tenant, not an owner. I’d like some help with my problem.

  18. Mike Johnson

    Where do you find a copy of the actual covenants that apply to your neighborhood? As an HOA we have an abridged version but I am trying to find the original, where do I look, property deed?

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