Don’t Confront. Interact and Educate! (DE Wave)

A visitor to Bethany Beach sent me an email where she tells me that her next-door neighbor freely allows her dogs to do their “business” on her lawn and driveway, and makes no effort to remove it. The writer feels uncomfortable confronting the neighbor about it, and wonders how to resolve the situation.

Her discomfort simply boils down to a dislike of confrontation. Part of the problem is the word itself. “Confrontation” sounds like a war is about to start. There’s no need for a war over dog droppings, but if one does develop, then it was unavoidable because the neighbor was a warlike person all along. Most of the time, we have the power to make interactions go as smoothly as we want them to.

For example, is there a rule in your community stating the requirement to clean up after dogs? You might point to it, with a smile, after giving her a nice greeting. Or, even better, just make a friendly request. For example, “I know this is awkward and I’m not a rule freak, but do you mind cleaning up when the dogs do their business? It’s kind of hard on the lawn.” Choose your words before interacting with her.

A lot of people who fear confrontation aren’t good at “thinking on their feet.” Don’t memorize or over-rehearse. Just plan a rough sketch, then do as they told me back when I did my radio show: Talk with a smile in your voice.

You told me two things about your neighbor. One, she is oblivious to her rudeness. Two, she’s generally quite friendly. It could be that she doesn’t know any better. For example, have you ever noticed that someone with a cold might sneeze into their hand, and then, with a big damp grin, expect you to shake that hand? More polite and respectful people say, “Stay away from me. Don’t catch what I have!” Some people just don’t know enough to do that. Your job is to gently educate them for your own sake. Notice that we now have two words to replace “confrontation.” One is “interact” and the other is “educate.”

There’s always the possibility that your neighbor’s friendliness is a front and she’s just provoking you. So what’s the worst that can happen? She’ll stalk away in a snit and the dogs will keep pooping on your lawn. Are you any worse off than before? But the worst usually doesn’t happen. In fact, most people who are huffy at first often come around once they simmer down. If your neighbor is so unreasonable that she makes this a federal case, then that’s her problem.

Give yourself some credit here. If she’s as friendly as you say, then it stands to reason that she would want to maintain a neighborly relationship with you. In that case, it’s in her self-interest to show you some consideration, lest she lose you as a friend. Again: If that’s not the case, you’re no worse off than before.

Some people truly fear confrontation. In any case involving a fear of something, it’s always a matter of desensitizing yourself. The more you do something without suffering dire consequences, the less fearful you become. For most people, conflict and disagreement are not everyday things, so reframing occasional confrontation as “interaction and education” can make it feel less threatening.

You asked, “What can I do?” I suspect you already knew what to do. Now I’ve told you why and how to do it. The alternative is to pretend nothing’s wrong — but you’ll know that it is. You’ll be annoyed with her AND yourself every time her well-fed dogs visit your property. Believe me, feeling like that all the time is much worse than anything you could fear by confronting her.

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