City of Bellevue brings peace to feuding neighbors for free
You’ve heard the stories: Neighbors who were once friendly are now feuding over trivial things like overgrown tree roots or a garbage can that’s blocking their driveway. Or, in true passive aggressive Pacific Northwest fashion, you’re not feuding, but you’re silently seething over your neighbor’s behavior.
If you live or work in Bellevue or Kirkland, the Bellevue Conflict Resolution Center is a free service that will help iron out problems between neighbors, landlords and tenants, co-workers, and even conflict you may be having with someone in your own family.
“We usually start off on the phone,” said Martha Spieker, one of the program’s 40 to 50 trained volunteers. “We’ll try to coach you to interact with your neighbor in a way that you can resolve the problem on your own. Sometimes people are beyond that, so we’ll try to call up the neighbor and listen to their side of the story. Our role is to be very neutral; we don’t take sides. I’m not here to decide what should be done about the tree root or anything else. But what you two can work on to have a better communication and decide on how you’re going to solve the problem together.
“Sometimes that doesn’t work, the problem is more complex or it’s been going on for a long time — so they come into City Hall, they have a mediation with two mediators, and try to come out with some solution,” she added.
The center sees an impressive 80 to 85 percent resolution rate, and they deal with about 300 cases a year. Program co-manager Marci McReynolds says there’s often not a problem at all — just a lack of communication.
“All of the time!” McReynolds laughed. “One of the first things we ask is, ‘Have you talked to your neighbor?’ A lot of times it’s, ‘No,’ Or, ‘They wont listen to me.’ There’s also the issue that most people haven’t been trained on how to broach a difficult conversation. We also go out into the community to train people in listening skills and we teach how to have a difficult conversation.”
McReynolds teaches an Art of Listening class at the public library, and her free programs have been so popular, that they have to turn people away.
“We really don’t know how to listen,” McReynold’s said. “I’m obsessed with this topic. It’s really about quieting the mind down and being present to someone; letting go of your own agenda, your own story and really getting to a neutral place to hear what someone else is saying. That is a hard thing to do.”
A big benefit of the program is the strain it takes off the police department, the justice system, and other government agencies that people often go to with minor disputes. They also imagine lawsuits are avoided because of the mediation. With thousands of people moving to our region, from all around the world, there’s bound to be cultural conflicts often based on misunderstandings.
Bellevue is the only city in the state to have a city-run conflict resolution center. But other cities and counties have programs that run through Resolution Washington.
If you’d like to learn more about becoming a volunteer or get on the mailing list to be alerted to future Art of Listening events, email [email protected]