How to Communicate When Behavior Doesn’t Change

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Doctor Neha: Welcome to Talk RX with Doctor Neha. Today, I have a lovely guest, Teresa. Welcome.

Teresa: Hello. How are you?

Doctor Neha: Good. Teresa and I have just met, but she is a brave soul willing to ask her communication questions so all of you can learn. What’s going on, Teresa?

Teresa: I’m fascinated with the fact that I could use communication to help me out in certain areas of my life in general. Currently, what’s going on in my life is I’m having a hard time communicating my point to some unruly neighbors. It’s turned into this back-and-forth tennis match between us. At first, I tried to be nice about it. They kept it up, and then that just got my blood elevated to a point where it started to boil. Then my reaction was a very negative one because they just wouldn’t stop. So now, nothing is helping. It’s not working.

Doctor Neha: You want to know how to break that cycle?

Teresa: I do and to do it in a positive way where we all get along because we have to live next to each other.

Doctor Neha: So when a situation is in your household or near your household, that’s your sanctuary, the place that you’re supposed to be able to come home and be able to exhale.

Teresa: Yes. Right.

Doctor Neha: First of all, how long have you lived next to your neighbors?

Teresa: I have been there for almost 6 years. My neighbors have been there for about a year. So they’re the new kids in town. It’s like they’re coming into my neighborhood and disrupting it.

Doctor Neha: Yeah. It feels like, “Listen. I’ve been here 6 years. I’ve got a little bit of seniority here. How dare you be so disrespectful to come in here?”

Teresa: Exactly, especially when it’s a quiet neighborhood. Everybody knows that. They’re disrupting it.

Doctor Neha: Tell me, what are they doing?

Teresa: For instance, I have very thin walls, as do most apartments and townhouses. We have a townhouse. There are five units, so you can hear everything going on directly next to your wall. One of the things that happens is that when the closet doors are opening and closing, the track on the bottom is very loud. It sounds almost like a rollercoaster.

Doctor Neha: Wow!

Teresa: I can’t do anything about that. That’s okay. It’s the fact that she is slamming it against the wall when she’s closing it. I’ve asked her, “Can you stop doing that?” They also slam their front door, and they slam their wrought iron door. It makes me feel like someone didn’t teach them how to close a door properly because everything is slam, slam, slam. When they have friends over, they will all go out, maybe have a cigarette, and they will be extremely loud. The thing is that in my apartment complex, the acoustics are elevated times 10—no matter what you do. They know this, but they just don’t seem to care.

Doctor Neha: It feels frustrating and you feel disrespected?

Teresa: I do. Their stereo system happens to be next to my wall in my living room, and they crank up that bass sometimes—at like midnight on a Monday.

Doctor Neha: Wow, okay. We got the creaky rollercoaster sliding doors.

Teresa: You can’t help that. That’s fine.

Doctor Neha: We got the bass going on at midnight. We have the friends.

Teresa: Slamming doors.

Doctor Neha: And the slamming of the doors.

Teresa: Correct.

Doctor Neha: Okay. When that happens, what happens inside you in that moment?

Teresa: I get irritated. Maybe I’m watching TV, and it’s hard to hear because the pounding of the walls with the bass of the stereo. It’s not that I can’t hear it, but I can feel it. The other thing is when maybe I’m going to sleep, and they’re being loud outside, I can hear it. When she’s slamming their closet door, sometimes, it’s 2:00 in the morning on a weekday, so I get very stressed out because I’m a light sleeper, and I can’t go back to sleep for another hour once that person wakes me up, so there are those two things going on. It’s frustrating.

Doctor Neha: It’s really frustrating, and so this idea is about how you approach her, right? First of all, there are a couple things I’d ask.

Teresa: Okay.

Doctor Neha: The first one is, what has everybody agreed to? Who has sat down and created a set of agreements around noise in your complex? What hours are okay, and what’s not, and the impact of it? Do you guys have any agreement around quiet hours?

Teresa: It’s basically what the landlord tells us. So I was going to tell you that was an approach I made, a roundabout approach without having to stir up confrontation. I would tell the landlord, and then she would let my neighbors know. But then they wanted to make sure that she didn’t give them any kind of animosity, so they would fib about what they were doing. There was really nothing she could do about it, except for telling them to stop. Technically, maybe some kind of word of mouth agreement, but you know what, that brings up a good point. I should check my lease agreement.

Doctor Neha: We’ve got to find out what the agreement is here. Because you’re trying to enforce something that I’m not sure exists.

Teresa: Right.

Doctor Neha: That would be a lot of wasted energy.

Teresa: That makes sense.

Doctor Neha: Then, this other piece is really important, where you say, “Listen. I’ve been here for 6 years, and you’ve only been here 1 year. Therefore, you need to be more respectful. You’re coming into my territory.” That’s going to set you up to feel better than or have more seniority, and you might come across condescending when you speak to them if that attitude is in the background for you. If that’s running the show but you’re not aware of it, your tone may come across in a way that puts them off, and then what it will do is trigger their reaction.

Teresa: That’s where the ping pong comes in, I think.

Doctor Neha: This is what I’m thinking. There’s one more thing. You went to the landlord, right? Which is talking about someone not to them, right?

Teresa: Right, right.

Doctor Neha: Our society does that a lot actually. When I’m uncomfortable, it’s a lot easier for me to talk about someone than it is to him or her. That’s when people push back. Talk about me, not to me because you bet I’m going to push back.

Teresa: Right.

Doctor Neha: So I’m going to show you how this conversation could go. I’m going to pretend I’m you, and you’re them:

“Teresa, when can we have a conversation? It will only take about 15 minutes, but there are some ways that I’ve shown up in our relationship as neighbors that I don’t think are working very well. I wanted to apologize, and I wanted to tell you how I think I can do it better. Is there a time that we could spend 15 or 20 minutes? When would be a good time for you?” Do you see how respectful I was about that?

Teresa: Absolutely.

Doctor Neha: The thing that you want the most—respect—you actually have to give it away first, but mostly, what people do is try to demand it of another, and that doesn’t work very well. Then, when you’re speaking to this person, I’d say,

“Let me start by saying I’m sorry. I have gotten frustrated over the past year. I’ve been here for six years and things were going along quite well, and I didn’t find myself very resourceful when things changed. So I talked to our landlord. I could see how it might not be very connecting in our relationship that I spoke to the landlord and not to you directly. That was my mistake, and I apologize for that. I first should have spent some time with you.”

“I want you to enjoy living here, I want you to have your friends over, and I want you to enjoy music, and I’m trying to figure out how can I be a good neighbor to you and be accommodating while I make sure that I get the sleep I need to function the next day. So there are some ideas I’ve come up with like I can use my earplugs. I also want to say, is there anything that I’ve been doing that has kept you up or has bothered you that we haven’t had the chance to have a direct conversation about?”

Teresa: Okay.

Doctor Neha: Would that be a different conversation?

Teresa: Yes, saying I’m sorry.

Doctor Neha: Would that be a different conversation than the one that you’ve had in the past?

Teresa: Absolutely. I actually tried to make a peace offering, and so did they, and everything was going swimmingly, but then they would just start over again like they forgot maybe.

Doctor Neha: One thing that’s true is behavior change takes time. We’re humans, and we’ve gotten used to a way of doing things. So even when you tell someone or they make an agreement with you, you have to say it again, “Hey, guys. Remember…?” or “I noticed we made this agreement, and last night, I was unable to sleep. What happened?” You have to be curious about what it is that happened and assume positive intentions—because if you assume that they’re here to make your life difficult, it’s going to come across in your tone.

Teresa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Doctor Neha: What were some of your takeaways?

Teresa: Basically, you want to communicate with them in a way that seems positive. Set up a time, so that you don’t …

Doctor Neha: Okay, hold on. “It seems positive” or “is positive?”

Teresa: That is positive.

Doctor Neha: We are doing some inauthentic cover-up communication here. Okay? You got to really feel it. People will know.

Teresa: That is positive. Set up a time and try not to come across as, “I’m better than you,” Make sure that the communication is there, so that they don’t forget what your frustrations are—again in a positive way. “These are my frustrations. Please tell me what yours are. Is there anything I can do or that I have done?”

Doctor Neha: And one time isn’t going to be enough, right? It’s an ongoing journey. It’s work, and in a really good way, but it’s time to build the trust again. It’s time to build a bank account, so if you do need to withdraw, there’s something in it, right?

Teresa: Yes, yes.

Doctor Neha: You guys have an emotional bank account that needs to be built together.

Teresa: I like that analogy.

Doctor Neha: All right. For any of you who are struggling with a neighbor being loud or feeling frustrated because you think you told someone something, first, check if you have an agreement. That’s important! The second is, if it’s someone you care about, you’re in an ongoing relationship, you might have to ask more than once, so be patient, be curious, and it will all work out. Invest in that emotional bank account, so when you do need to ask someone to please stop or turn their radio down, they will be invested in you too. Thank you, Teresa.

Teresa: Thank you.

Doctor Neha: Thank you so much.

Send me your questions — drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write your question and comments down below.

Awareness Prescription

  1. Check whether you have an agreement (Read TalkRx: Chapter 21, “He Said, She Said,” to learn about the Five Levels of Agreement).
  2. Co-create an agreement.
  3. If an agreement is violated, get curious about what changed.
  4. Renegotiate based on what has happened. What will be the consequences if it happens again?
  5. Be patient. Behavior change takes time and effort.

Like a good neighbor,

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