The rain beat noisily on the roof of the car as I parked outside our destination, a rather sad-looking Victorian double-fronted house that had clearly seen better times. Helen and I sat for a moment in silent contemplation of our latest assignment. Disputes came in all shapes and sizes with little relationship to wealth, background or ethnicity, and as mediators we had to be prepared for anything. Volunteering to help people find a solution to their difficulties could be very rewarding, but it was invariably a demanding and often harrowing experience.
I rang the doorbell, mentally rehearsing my opening mantra and strategies for dealing with doorstep difficulties. We were not always welcome.
"Yes" said a metallic and unwelcoming male voice from the intercom speaker.
"This is Barry, and my colleague Helen; we are from the mediation service. We have come to see Chris Paling to discuss the issues we outlined in our recent letter."
There was a long pause, and Helen and I exchanged glances in anticipation of a brush-off. So we were surprised when the speaker squawked "You better come up".
The building had been converted into flats, but in a minimalist way with little attention to detail or style. I suspected that it was a classic 'buy-to-let' investment designed to yield the maximum financial return to the owner. As we climbed the stairs to the first floor flat it became clear that the flimsy internal alterations were in sharp contrast to the solid structure of the original house.
Chris Paling was waiting for us at the door to his flat, his dress and demeanour suggesting a bachelor in his late fifties. He ushered us into his lounge, a generous sized room dominated by a huge grand piano, and invited us to sit on a saggy sofa. Helen and I had agreed that I would make the early running. So I began with a brief description of mediation, its objective to help parties in dispute to find their own solution, stressing our impartiality and independence, and confirming the total confidentiality of everything we discussed. After making sure that he had fully understood and was willing to proceed, it was now time to get down to the serious business.
"We understand that you have been having some difficulties with your neighbour. Please tell us about it." I said, assuming my best professional but empathetic persona.
"It's been a terrible few weeks. I can hardly bear to think about it, let alone describe it to complete strangers." Chris had his head down and seemed close to tears. I was about to give him some encouragement when he appeared to find a sudden strength, and continued in a firm and determined voice.
"I am a professional musician, have been all my life. I know I have a formidable talent, but circumstances have conspired to prevent me from achieving my full potential. Many of the people I studied with have gone on to great things. So why not me, eh? I eke out a living as the pianist in a classical quartet, and until recently my career has been going nowhere. But a few weeks ago my agent called to tell me he had booked me for a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. I was ecstatic. At last an opportunity to demonstrate my worth on a big stage. Then it all went wrong." His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he fought to swallow his emotion, a first tear squeezing from the corner of his eye.
"That bloody man next door!"
The awkward silence seemed interminable, so Helen gave him a gentle push.
"What happened to make you so upset?" she prompted.
Chris wiped away the tear and struggled manfully to finish his story. "To give of my best I must practice. I must. Every day for as long as I have the will and the energy. But whenever I start to play my horrible neighbour bangs on the wall, and keeps doing it until I have no other option but to stop. If I'm not note perfect for my concert performance my career will go down the toilet. I'm already losing my confidence, and as the date comes ever closer I fear that it will not return in time. Please get him to stop."
The mental anguish of this vivid nightmare suddenly became too much for him, and he covered his face with both hands and sobbed. It was hard not to succumb to feeling a deep sympathy for someone so clearly in terrible distress, but being a mediator requires that impartiality takes precedence over emotion. So we gave him time to collect himself, and then started to probe some of the underlying issues that might enable him to find an accommodation with his neighbour.
It transpired that he was practicing full tilt for several hours every day in an attempt to be ready for his Wigmore Hall concert in four weeks' time. The flimsy stud wall between Chris and his irate neighbour was no match for a grand piano played fortissimo, but practicing elsewhere, assuming a suitable venue could be found, raised more problems than it solved.
"Have you spoken to your neighbour about it?" enquired Helen, keen to defuse the escalating anger Chris was showing as he warmed to his theme, and anxious that we should move on to explore more productive issues.
"He's just a young student, a different generation from me. We nod the time of day when we meet on the stairs, but beyond these normal polite exchanges we've never really spoken to each other." Just another sad commentary, I thought, on the generation gap, which so often caused a profound reluctance to make the effort to communicate even when circumstances were crying out for it.
"Would you be prepared to meet your neighbour face to face, to discuss the problem and to explore ways of reaching a mutually acceptable accommodation?" I ventured.
"I doubt it would do much good" replied Chris, with a gesture of utter despair.
"Sometimes we must try if we are to overcome our difficulties" I countered.
"Don't you patronise me, young man" he snapped, more in frustration than in anger.
My profuse apology, quickly offered but I have to confess not honestly felt, seemed to take the edge off his anger, and he grudgingly agreed to continue with mediation, but not without expressing a caveat about his limited expectations.
Helen and I returned to my car with the usual conflicting emotions after a first meeting: pleased that we had sold the idea of a face-to-face meeting, but rather daunted by the lack of any obvious solution. Still, if the issue were simple then our services would not have been needed.
Mindful of the need for a quick resolution we were able to arrange a prompt meeting with Chris's neighbour, and returned to the house a few days later to meet Joe Hall, a postgraduate student at the local university. Despite having made an appointment, our problems began at the front door.
"I'm rather busy right now. Could you come back at another time?" was his opening gambit, delivered via the impersonal intercom with no opportunity for us to respond to his body language.
"It would be really helpful if you could spare us a little time; forty minutes should do it. The issues we would like to discuss with you are rather urgent, so your help would be much appreciated." Helen is good at the empathic side of our work, ever ready with a well-chosen phrase to defuse most tricky situations.
"If you promise not to be too long I might be able to spare you a few minutes."
We were in. Jumped the first hurdle. Little victories.
This time Helen did the honours, explaining the mediation process with a quiet fluency gained from many years of practice, and moving at a pace slow enough to cover all the essential points yet fast enough to reassure Joe that we would stay within our self-imposed time limit.
"Tell us about your issues with Mr Paling next door." invited Helen, when she had said her piece.
"It's simple really. He plays his piano full blast morning, noon and night. The only way I can get him to stop is to bang on the wall, otherwise he would go on forever. If he wants to enjoy his hobby he should do it somewhere else, and not annoy his neighbours." Joe emphasised his opinion by banging his fist on the table beside him, clearly in no mood to leave any uncertainty about the strength of his feelings.
"Have you tried to speak to him about his piano playing?" was the best I could manage, mindful of the cardinal rule that you do not reveal anything you have learned in confidence from the other party without their explicit permission.
"Yes, I knocked on his door when it first started, but he pretended to be out. You cannot reason with an old curmudgeon. I bet he told you I was a difficult member of the younger generation, but I only called the police as a last resort after our landlord refused to do anything to stop him."
Wow! Had Joe really escalated the problem to both the landlord and the police. The problem was evidently much worse than we had supposed. Some nimble footwork was now needed to keep the mediation process on track, or we might be unable to take it much further. When one door closes, try another.
"Do you spend a lot of time in your flat, or do your studies keep you at the university?" I asked, clutching at straws.
"My thesis is due for submission in four weeks, so I spend almost all my time at home trying to finish it. I can't go to my parents' house as all my reference material is here. The noise from next door is therefore doubly annoying, as it is stopping me from completing something that will have a profound effect on the rest of my life." Once again Joe made his point with a thump of his fist on the table. I was grateful that there were two of us, as the violence might conceivably become personal if I continued to ask provocative questions, however unwittingly.
Helen, sensing my discomfort, stepped in with a timely question. "Do you think meeting Mr Paling and discussing your feelings might help to find a solution?"
"I doubt it. He seems to be an intractable old fool with no social awareness, otherwise he wouldn't be behaving in such a selfish and unthinking way," then after a moment he added "but I guess I could give it a try."
Nearing our agreed time limit of forty minutes it seemed sensible to quit while we were ahead, so I flashed our wrap-up signal to Helen. Such is our rapport, built up over many years working together, she seamlessly asked Joe if he was prepared to proceed with a face-to-face meeting facilitated by us. He agreed, and we beat a hasty retreat before he could change his mind.
This time we took little comfort from having persuaded both parties to agree to a meeting, for the problem had just become worse. Both parties disliked each other, they both had pressing reasons to pursue their own needs during the next four weeks, neither of them was willing to move elsewhere, and the dispute had been escalated to both the landlord and the police.
"What now?" sighed Helen as we drove away, our minds buzzing.
"One thing's for sure," I said, "whatever we do it has to be done fast."
As time was of the essence, we decided to dispense with the customary second meeting with each party, and made do with a phone call to explain how the face-to-face meeting would be conducted and to agree a time and place.
I called Chris, and for a moment I thought he might back out. He demanded to know if Joe had branded him an old fool, and I chose to lie and deny it rather than put his further involvement at risk. Is telling a lie during mediation ever justified? I convinced myself that in this case it was, and when I told Helen she loyally agreed. I suggested that Chris speak first at the meeting, as he was the complainant when the dispute was initially referred to mediation by their landlord.
Helen then called Joe, and to our dismay he demanded to speak first. After a little diplomacy with Chris we finally agreed that Joe would have the first say. Mindful that mediation is an entirely voluntary process for both parties, on the premise that unwilling participation is unlikely to result in a mutually acceptable outcome, they both needed to agree to be involved every step of the way.
So Helen and I grappled with how to square this particular circle. The root of the problem was undoubtedly a lack of any meaningful dialogue between Chris and Joe. Our strategy therefore was to encourage them to communicate and see what developed. Our tactics could only be to take advantage of any sign indicating a meeting of minds; in other words, to bide our time and hope!
The face-to-face meeting was held in the offices of our mediation service, a neutral venue with all the necessary facilities, like separate reception areas for each of the parties and a comfortable and relaxed environment for the meeting itself. Helen and I bustled about, making sure the furniture was positioned to promote communication without confrontation and the room was properly equipped with stationery and refreshments. These simple preparations can often make a difference to the tenor of the meeting and thus its outcome.
Chris arrived first, and our receptionist welcomed him with a coffee while we waited for Joe. Bringing them both into the meeting room at the same time was just another small reinforcement that they both have equal status in the mediation process. When Joe showed up just before the appointed time our receptionist invited both of them to join us, and we directed them to the seats we had chosen for them.
"Thank you for coming" Helen began. "Just to remind you, I'm Helen and this is Barry. Are you happy to be called Chris and Joe?" They both nodded.
After the usual formalities about the facilities, health and safety precautions and refreshments, she spelled out how the meeting would be conducted.
"We will begin by giving each of you the opportunity to speak and be heard. Please respect each other by not interrupting these opening statements. We will then explore together ideas for a settlement, focussing on the future rather than dwelling on what may have happened in the past. Remember, as mediators we are here to help you reach your own solution, not to make decisions for you or to judge what is right or wrong. Are you both willing to proceed on this basis?"
Joe nodded his assent. Chris leaned back in his chair without gesture or comment, ignoring the question with an air of total indifference. I sensed his disconnection and promptly stepped in.
"Chris, it would be really helpful if you could be a little more positive. We are here to find a way forward, which needs your active participation."
"It would be helpful if you stopped lecturing me on how to behave. I'm here, aren't I?"
Helen, ever ready with appropriate soothing words, smiled at him and said "We are very glad you attended this meeting, Chris, and I'm confident that it will yield a worthwhile outcome." Then deftly changing the subject, she switched her smile to Joe. "Would you like to tell us how you feel about this situation, Joe."
"I'm trying to finish my thesis," he began, "and it's really hard to concentrate when a piano is being played loudly next door. I do not have the luxury of time as my work must be submitted in less than four weeks, and banging on the wall is the only way I can get him to stop. Perhaps he could enjoy his hobby by finding a piano to play somewhere else."
He explained at length how it was impossible for him to work in any other venue, how he had approached their landlord for help and explored the possibility of sound-proofing their party wall, and had attempted to talk directly to Chris, all without success. His final resort had been to summon the police, but they were unwilling to become involved in a non-violent dispute between neighbours.
I could see that Chris was becoming increasingly agitated, particularly when the police were mentioned, and I hoped that Joe would yield the floor to him before his feelings boiled over in an angry outburst. Fortunately Joe finished in time, but Chris was clearly still sore.
"Can you imagine how I felt when the police knocked on my door in the middle of the night and confronted me with an allegation of antisocial behaviour - for playing my piano? My own piano in my own flat! I am a professional musician in my fifties without a blemish on my character or reputation, and I was accused of antisocial behaviour. I felt utterly humiliated. You need to understand, Joe, that I also have a looming deadline which will have a profound effect on my career, indeed on my life! I'm booked to play three wonderful piano concertos at the Wigmore Hall in barely three weeks' time, and I need my performance to be flawless. To achieve perfection I must practice. I'm truly sorry if my playing is causing you grief, but what other choice do I have?"
He fell silent, seemingly spent by recalling his unpleasant encounter with the police. We waited, none of us wishing to intrude on his palpable distress. Then he took us all by surprise.
"I had no idea that you have a pressing need to complete your studies", he said in a quiet voice, his anger suddenly gone.
I sensed a watershed, a change of mood from anger and indignation to the first signs of recognition by Chris that maybe he had been unfair about his judgements of Joe. Such opportunities are not to be missed, so I tried to encourage a similar positive reaction from Joe.
"Now that you know why Chris needs to play his piano, do you feel differently about his behaviour?" I asked.
Turning to Chris, Joe replied "I'm sorry, Chris, I thought you were just playing to wind me up. I was completely unaware that you were a professional musician preparing for a major performance."
Both of them dropped their eyes in silent contemplation of their own misjudgements. Understanding each other's behaviour was a good sign, but we seemed no nearer to agreeing a way forward. It was time for some brainstorming. Helen was ahead of me.
"Chris, when do you normally practice?"
"It varies. A couple of hours in the morning, then lunch, and again in the afternoon. I usually have a walk before dinner to compose myself. Sometimes, when I'm struggling to get a particular piece just right, I can play for an hour or two in the evening as well." His tone had changed, from gloomy resignation to sounding more open and cooperative.
"So four hours every day would be typical, would it?" she pressed. I saw where she was going, and mentally crossed my fingers.
"If I averaged four hours of uninterrupted practice every day then that should see me through", he replied. I glimpsed a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
Joe seemed to sense this too, and jumped in with a suggestion. "I could cope with four hours a day for the next few weeks if I knew when they were going to happen." After considering his options for a moment he looked at Chris and asked "What times would be best for you?"
"How about nine thirty to eleven thirty in the morning and three to five in the afternoon?" Chris replied. Now we were motoring.
"I'm a late starter, so earlier in the morning would suit me better; could you make your morning session eight 'til ten?" Joe smiled as he admitted his late rising, and Chris responded in kind.
The rest was all plain sailing. In just a few minutes Chris and Joe had progressed from impasse to a mutually acceptable solution entirely of their own making. Truly mediation in action! Helen and I composed a short agreement defining their arrangement, including a paragraph detailing how they would communicate if there were any problems in the future, and they both happily signed it. Chris and Joe shook hands, and we were done.
After they had left, together, Helen smiled at me and said "If only they were all that easy."
"Easy?" I replied with mock indignation. "You must be joking!"
But she was right; such a clear cut result was not the norm. So we walked to the pub with a comfortable glow of achievement warming our hearts.