Neighbours in Dispute Over Smoking

Karen and her boyfriend Paul (downstairs) had been living downstairs in a house conversion for three years when Glenda and her partner Graham with their two young children moved in upstairs. 

The couple in the downstairs flat smoked at home and wanted to carry on with their routines and lifestyle. However, the smell of cigarette smoke provoked some fiery exchanges between households and this triggered immense anxiety for Karen. 

As soon as they moved in, Glenda and Graham (upstairs) started contacting their housing officer to complain about the smoking and the impact on their children.  They were ringing her on and off most weeks.  The calls were mostly short and often ended with Glenda threatening to make a formal complaint and slamming the phone down. 

This continued for 6 months as the housing officer tried to speak to Paul and Karen about minimising their smoking, but the couple felt they weren’t doing anything wrong.   

Glenda and Graham thought that the housing officer was on their neighbour’s side, since the smoking hadn’t stopped. However, smoking wasn’t a breach of tenancy and so the housing officer was not able to take any enforcement steps, but this didn’t satisfy the residents and make the problem go away. 


Proposing Mediation To Both Households 

Karen and Paul were apprehensive to face Glenda and Graham because of the shouting they’d experienced in the past.  They felt certain that their neighbours weren’t going to stop smoking and so responded to the offer of mediation with “what’s the point??”.   

The housing officer was able to reassure them by pointing out that the first meeting would be private and only Calm’s mediators would be present, not their neighbours.  She was clear with Karen and Paul that mediation is voluntary; they wouldn’t have to do anything they didn’t want to do.  They agreed to her suggestion that they have a chat with the mediators and then decide what to do next.  In lockdown this was all going to be done online with Zoom.   

Glenda and Graham felt that they’d tried talking to their neighbours and nothing changed.  They didn’t feel anything else could be done.   

The housing officer explained that mediation would be a very different conversation from the ones they’d had on the doorstep.  Shwas clear about the extent of power the housing organisation had to enforce anythingthat she couldn’t force anyone to stop smoking cigarettes in the privacy of their own home.  The housing officer told them that nine out of ten times people meet in mediation, agreement is reached.  This has been going on for six months and, for the sake of around three hours, things could be better! 

Both households agreed to meet the two Calm Mediation practitioners. 


The Introductory Meetings 

Talking with the mediators, Glenda and Graham felt more could be done downstairs to prevent the smoke coming upstairs.  They also needed to be clear about how the smoke was impacting on them all.  They were encouraged to consider whether there was anything they could do differently to improve the situation and what ideas they had to put to their neighbours too.  

In a separate meeting, Karen and Paul soon relaxed once they could see that the mediators weren’t judging their smoking habit but were genuinely wanting to help them find a way forward to resolve the problems.   They were also encouraged to consider how they would explain the impact of the situation on themselves to their neighbours and to come up with ideas as to what needed to be different in the future so that this could be reduced.  


The Mediation Meeting and Outcome 

Before bringing everyone into the virtual Zoom room together, the mediators had a short private meeting with each household to ensure they were feeling comfortable to proceed.  This was going to be the first time they had seen each other since the start of lockdown and so were quite apprehensive.   

Each side had a chance to speak about the situation from their perspective, without anyone interrupting.  The mediators then skilfully moved the conversation forward from past issues.  Slowly, once they felt heard, the individuals were able to speak about the future and discuss what could be done so that they can both live as neighbours in peace. 

The mediators wrote down points in an agreement: 

  • Both parties acknowledged that the construction of the house meant that smells spread around easily. 
  • Everyone agreed that during and after lockdown, rather than knocking on each other’s door when there is a problem they would text instead.  Karen and Glenda felt they would like to be the ones to do this and exchanged numbers.  
  • Holes in the ceiling were left by the previous tenants.  Graham would lend Paul and Karen his work ladder to seal them, in case it was allowing smoke upstairs.   
  • A valuable point came out in the meeting that Glenda and Graham didn’t know – Karen and Paul were already considering replacing their smoking with vaping but having been so anxious about the situation instead they were smoking more cigarettes. Now on better terms with their neighbours, Karen and Paul felt in a better place to review their decisions on their own terms.  
  • Both clients gave their consent for Calm Mediation to send a copy of the Agreement to the housing officer. 

Since the mediation meeting, the housing officer hasn’t heard from these residents Calm’s mediators successfully facilitated open communication between the two households so that there was greater understanding on each side, and plans put in place so that lasting peace could be achieved for everyone. 


In Summary 

  • Referring residents to mediation means that the housing officer isn’t caught in the crossfire between them when they have no enforceable solution 
  • As soon as the referral is made, Housing officers can then focus on more severe cases which need their attention. 
  • Mediation gives a lasting solution that won’t take up the time of housing staff in future.  This then allows them to focus on the core parts of their jobs.  
  • Mediation is incredibly valuable because the participants buy into the solutions; they are the ones who decide how the future is going to be and it’s not a solution imposed upon them and so they are more likely to adhere to what’s been agreed. 
  • Mediation allows people to see the ‘human’ side of a complaint.  It’s not just “STOP SMOKING!”.  Instead it’s “When you smoke, my baby can’t stop coughing and it scares me”.  By understanding the impact of behaviour, it allows for insight and greater understandingand encourages change.