Communication – the means might just determine the end….

It’s all about communication! How successful we are likely to be in achieving what we want to achieve is all about communication. Well, maybe not ALL, but a fair portion of our success lies in how and what we communicate with others. Here’s the story that has me focusing on this today:

I live on an estate managed on a day to day basis by us residents – we have a resident run company. En route to my stairwell this evening, I passed a fellow resident and said “Good Evening!’ He asked if I had seen Ed. I hadn’t and asked him what was up, as he was frowning. He – le’ts call him Jack – explained that he was having plumbing problems and was looking for Ed to help him out. Jack’s kitchen sink had not only been blocked but had been spewing out awful, smelly stuff. For the time being the problem had been solved – Jack had used really strong chemicals to clear it out after plunging didn’t work. After explaining this all to me, Jack then said:  “If it happens again I am going to call the police and say someone is doing drugs on the estate!” I did not quite get the connection, so asked him to elaborate. His rationale was that it can only be drugs that would be blocking up the drains like that.  


My response: ‘Well you don’t know that drugs have anything to do with your sink problem and I’m not sure calling the police would help anything. Have you told Pete?” Pete is the resident Director of Building Maintenance. “Yes, and he told me to find Ed’, Jack replied with a slightly raised voice and added “Typical, always passing the buck on to others.” Knowing that Pete takes his Director role very seriously, I suggested it wasn’t the case and that we go knock on Pete’s door and have a chat.  

As we walked up the stairwell, Jack asked me: “So you think he’ll listen to you more than he did me?” I said I thought that two residents are more powerful than one and that it is a matter of how the issue is communicated. So, we knocked on Pete’s door, and I explained that I had bumped into Jack and that Ed was not home. Pete explained that a plumber needs to determine the cause of the overflow – whether or not it is the external drain pipe or something in someone’s flat – and that Ed is a plumber. Pete also talked about a previous problem there had been on the estate and how it had long costly process of getting it fixed, how old the plumbing was and so forth. Jack responded to this by focusing on the fact that it clearly wasn’t his fault and told his story of all that he had to go through to deplug the train, emphasizing that he had heard someone wandering up the landing the day before with a similar problem. 

What was I doing while all this was going on? I reframed the dialogue. For example, I clarified for Jack (because I could tell that Jack wasn’t hearing this from Pete’s explanation) how the process works here – that internal plumbing matters are the resident’s responsibility. We are obliged to call in a plumber and if they conclude the source of the problem is external than the Management company gets involved. But the first step is identifying the source of the problem. I stressed that Pete was offering up Ed as person who would have a look for free, when Jack said that calling in a plumber would cost a fortune. I empathised. For example, I said to Ed that I could see he was frustrated and fearful – what if this happened again and was something he couldn’t fix?  I also reminded him it was frustrating for all us residents that this is how the process works – with the aim of helping him feel connected with others in his experience.

By the end of the conversation, Jack suggested to Pete that he thought the cause might be someone’s dishwasher and the food waste going through it. I assumed – that being the case – he no longer thought a call to the police would be appropriate should he have plumbing problems in the future. Pete gave Jack Ed’s mobile number and told him to give Ed a ring and say that they had spoken. He assured Jack that he would get to the bottom of this matter.

Why did I get involved? I’m a qualified and practicing mediator. I suspected that a a conversation at the end of a workday between an angry, frustrated, sceptical and worried resident and the Maintenance Director (who I knew had the spent the past week grappling with the tough and costly issue of window repairs) would not go well if they were left to their own devices. With this suspicion in mind, I made the suggestion to Jack that we go talk to Pete together. I wanted to facilitate expansive and constructive communication. I wanted Jack to feel satisfied that his concerns had been heard and taken seriously. Jack shook my hand as we parted and I said if he bumped into me again he must let me now how it all unfolds. As I was walking away for him, he paused to ask another resident who was just coming home if he was having plumbing problems. In fact, he was – and I found myself thinking that perhaps now Jack will feel less isolated in all this and that will be a source of comfort. As for Pete, I didn’t want him to be shouted at and/or bullied for what Jack had felt was a dismissive response when he first raised the issue. I don’t think it was dismissive to tell Jack to find Ed. Rather, it lacked a necessary full explanation and an exchange that would have given Jack the sense of being heard and taken seriously. 

Generally, I wanted success, peace, and satisfaction for both of my fellow residents – and I knew that the key to getting that would be how they communicated with each other. And that a little help with that could go a long way.


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