This post is another recent personal conflict resolution anecdote. It illustrates how assumptions and misunderstandings are often at the core of conflict, and also how jumping into ‘taking something personally’ can escalate conflict.

I live in a small-ish apartment building. My teenage son lives with me more than half the time. No children live in the building full time, and almost all the tenants are single adults over 40. The Boy and I like occasional loud music, spontaneous dance parties, roughhousing, and laughing, but nobody has ever complained about these habits in the 4 years we have lived here. However the stairwells are not up to code and stairway and hallway noises sound like they’re in your living room.

The Boy and I are consistently on guard not to disturb the retired woman who lives below us. She has told me that she doesn’t care if we make noise during the day, so we oblige and stay out of her way. About three months ago the landlord, who also lives in the building, told me that I needed to remind my son to be quiet on the stairs. I assumed this was for the benefit of my downstairs neighbour and I gave The Boy the reminder. A few weeks ago the landlord and I were texting regarding other matters and he asked me again to remind my son to be quiet on the stairs. I thought this was a little weird because he IS quiet on the stairs and we are very conscious of our neighbours, so I just ignored it.

This was my first mistake.

The other day I was at home with The Boy who was packing some things to go to his dad’s. He took off and I was about to start making supper when there was a knock at my door. I called out, “who is it?” thinking maybe The Boy forgot something or it was a friend of his. No reply. I looked through the peephole and there was my landlord. Usually when I say, “who is it” and it’s him he says his name. But not this time.

When I opened the door his face exhibited such an angry expression he didn’t even look like the same person. I said hello and he said, “I have had it with your son running up and down the stairs.” He spoke in a highly controlled manner, obviously working hard to keep his emotions from leaking. I asked him to clarify what he meant by “had it” as my mind sped furiously to put together what he could be so upset about. Something was amiss because when The Boy left a few minutes ago he didn’t even take these stairs –

Oh crap! There’s another set of stairs in this building and they are right beside this man’s apartment! Suddenly I realized that the issue was noise on the OTHER set of stairs. How could I have been so obtuse? The back stairs are closest to The Boy’s other home, so he often goes that route back and forth to his dad’s. But since I rarely take those stairs it seems I forgot all about them.

The intensity in my landlord’s voice was ramping up so I asked him if this was some kind of eviction notice. He denied that and said, “but I FEEL like evicting you!” He told me that either I had lied to him when I said I had talked to my son about the stair noise or else my son was being noisy on purpose. I knew both of these claims were wrong but now was not the time for us to engage in an oops-I-made-a-mistake conversation; when human minds are flooded with emotion our capacity to use rational parts of the brain is severely diminished.

Having decided that this man was having too many feelings to discuss my lack of insight about the floor plan of the building, I was calm and curious during our short exchange but did not pursue any discussion. (It’s when folks are in this highly aroused anger state that big fights happen). Immediately after he had gone I began composing an apology in my head. Here is the email I sent him later that evening:

I’m writing to apologize for a big assumption I made. This assumption created a misunderstanding, which led you to my door this evening to report about N. running up & down the stairs.

I assumed since the very first time you told me about N’s stair noise that you were referring to the stairs at the front door by my apartment. I am really, really sorry that I never even thought about the stairs on your side of the building. Total blind spot for me! I finally realized what was going on this evening when you came to speak to me, but as it dawned on me precisely what the issue was, I was not able to articulate this because I felt so bad about having upset you.

Like I said to you earlier, I have talked to N. many times about the stairs and how noisy they are, and I have seen him be quite quiet on this side of the building. We hear everyone else come and go so we know how sound travels around here. Unfortunately, I was only working with half of the picture and this has been hard on you.

I am absolutely certain that N. was not *trying* to be noisy on your side of the building. I have explained all this to him and I take full responsibility for my accidental oversight. Please know that this was purely unintentional.

I have no control over my landlord’s reaction to this message. I hope he understands and can appreciate my honest mistake and my sincere desire for harmonious relations. I am grateful that awareness of my own shortcomings helps to make me more tolerant of the shortcomings of others.

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