10 Tips: Mediators’ Techniques to Build, Foster, Restore Community Cohesion

According to Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies, rental housing is home to more than a third of American households.[1] Due at least in part to the nationwide housing shortage, rental housing has become the only option for an unprecedented number of Americans including a growing number of older and wealthier ones.  Because Americans are sharing multi-unit housing in unprecedented numbers, and because we are going through a period of particularly intense polarization, the need for all of us to build, foster or restore a shared sense of community cohesion has perhaps never been more important. 

Americans are “Starving for Deeper Connections”

In 2019, Nonfiction Research, an independent, Brooklyn-based company, released a study which revealed that “many Americans are starving for deeper connections with others” and secretly crave a level of intimacy and connection that they do not have.   Empirical research confirms that a sense of disconnection is associated with a wide variety of health issues and health-related behaviors.  Among them are mortality, obesity, physical activity, preventive healthcare, socioeconomic inequalities, sexual health, smoking, alcohol consumption, mental health and antisocial behaviors.[2]   

What is “Community Cohesion”?

Defining “community cohesion” and all it entails has proved surprisingly challenging for social scientists.  Researchers Craig D. Uchida, Marc L. Swatt, Shellie E. Solomon, Sean Varano come closest to what I mean here.[3] 

Community or social cohesion is “an emotional and social investment in a neighborhood [or community] and sense of shared destiny among residents.”  It creates a bond and all that that brings. “When residents meet with each other and interact, they form social ties or acquaintanceships.  In well-functioning neighborhoods, there will be a large number of social ties between residents; while in poorly functioning neighborhoods there will be a lot fewer of them.”[4]  When a community shares a healthy sense of cohesion, it promotes adherence to community norms and rules and engagement for the purpose of problem-solving.  It also reduces the perception of risk by individual members of the community[5] in ways that can enhance a sense of trust.  Residents living in a community with close social ties tend to watch out for each other and their property.[6] 

Why Community Cohesion Matters to All of Us

You do not need to be a social scientist to understand that how residents think and feel about their community drives how they interact, treat and cooperate (or not) with others.  Do the people in your apartment/condo complex/assisted living facility/HOA governed neighborhood get along with each other? Do you count on each other to collect your mail, pick up groceries, help move a bookcase, jump a car battery, walk a dog?  Do you get together for holiday dinners or anything else? Do you look out for each other? Do you feel safe?  If not, the techniques and practices developed, taught and practiced by mediators can nurture a sense of cohesion in your community and everywhere else.  Below, I recommend 10 simple, easy, mostly cost-free tips for building, fostering, restoring community cohesion using mediation techniques.

Tip #1: Make it a habit to acknowledge the people in your community.  

Perhaps the best way to shift the dynamic in your community is also the easiest: acknowledge people.  Give them eye contact.  Say hello.  Introduce yourself. Refer to people by name. Ask questions.  Listen to responses.  In a word: interact.             

Tip #2: Solicit the input of residents when changes are planned. 

When in doubt and whenever possible, ask community members how they would like to see the community evolve or improve. Soliciting residents’ opinions can greatly enhance their feelings of cohesion, efficacy, and engagement.  The engagement and active participation of community members is essential to their generalized sense of community cohesion.  In multi-unit/assisted living/HOA governed housing consider sending out a survey or having residents vote via poll when changes or improvements are being contemplated for the community. If you collect votes in the leasing office or a community space, it will afford staff and residents an added opportunity to meet and talk about a topic of interest to everyone.  If you are reluctant to solicit opinions for fear having to meet unrealistic expectations, just be clear.  Manage expectations.  Include a disclaimer if you want.  Regardless of how you decide to collect opinions, share the results of your survey or poll with your community. 

Tip #3: Initiate and encourage face-to-face discussions.  

When a difference of opinion or other kind of conflict arises, try discussing the matter rather than leaving an anonymous note, texting or reporting the matter.  Most people respond better to a well-intentioned conversation or reminder than a notice. When you can do so, try the former and save the latter for repeated or dangerous issues.    

Tip #4: Approach people the way you would like them to respond in-kind. 

The reasons are obvious.  Enough said.

Tip #5: Communicate effectively. 

If you want to build and promote a healthy rapport with community members, model compassionate communication.  Return calls.  Respond to emails.  Do not dismiss or unduly delay requests for discussion.  Be as transparent as possible.  Be reliable.  If you are a housing provider, keep reliable office hours. Be clear about when you will handle a repair request.  Follow-through.  If your time-line changes, communicate that as soon as possible.  Do not exhibit favoritism.  Refrain from and discourage community gossip.  Perhaps most importantly:  Do not ignore people because communicating with them may be uncomfortable or awkward.  In my experience as a housing attorney and mediator, ignoring someone almost always makes everything worse.

Tip #6: Host, sponsor and/or encourage community events and engagement. 

A study released in Canada in 2017 found that multiunit residential buildings identified as “friendly” by their residents offered a combination of community design and programming.[7]  Even if your community does not afford the ideal infrastructure for community engagement, there are many things that can foster a sense of cohesion. 

Have a welcoming committee.  Offer helpful resources in a welcome packet, on a community bulletin board and/or community website.  Encourage, support, promote a community council. Hold an open house or block party. Schedule community game, and/or movie nights.  Offer informative workshops. Acknowledge holidays. Organize and/or publicize volunteer opportunities in or around the community. Designate space for a community garden. 

If there are pressing issues to be discussed or addressed, consider hosting a listening session.  For best results, be especially mindful of the logistics.  Select a time that is most convenient for the largest number of residents.  Provide sufficient notice.  For those unavailable to attend, provide an alternative means by which they can share their concerns and opinions.  Grant requests for reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities to remove inclusion barriers.   Consider incentivizing attendance with door prizes or food.  If the meeting promises heated discussion, consider hiring a meeting facilitator or mediator to moderate.  Set aside enough time to fully address concerns and answer questions.  And perhaps most important of all: Listen to learn.  Defensiveness defeats the purpose of a listening session.   

Tip #7: Know the state and federal laws governing residential tenancies; follow them. 

Perhaps nothing is more destructive to community cohesion than a housing provider or HOA that knowingly or unknowingly violates or ignores its requirements under the law. I conducted a series of listening sessions for a housing provider in the process of implementing necessary but highly controversial restrictions to its lease agreements.  The first sessions were fraught with so much anger on the part of the residents, we barely addressed the impending changes.  It was not until the property manager came into compliance with the warranty of habitability and addressed long-overdue requests for repairs that we were able to discuss and ultimately engage in productive conversations with the residents about the future of the property.

Also important, because housing providers are almost aways subject to liability for the violative acts or omissions of their employees in the housing context, because HOA Board members can be held personally liable for violations under the state and federal fair housing law and because it is the right thing to do, basic and regular training as it applies to the state and federal housing laws, habitability and other highly relevant statutes is time and money well-spent, including but not limited to encouragement of healthy community cohesion.

Tip #8: Cherish the gift of diversity

Be mindful and accommodating of cultural differences. If you are fortunate enough to live in a diverse housing community, embrace the opportunity.  A culturally diverse community offers obvious opportunities for celebration, education and community-building. The benefits promise to extend well beyond the property lines.  It is also important to be aware and mindful of implicit bias.  That too provides obvious opportunities for education and community-building.

Tip #9: Become trauma- informed. 

All of us have experienced trauma.  For some of us, the experiences prove at least temporarily debilitating.  Not all uncooperative and/or unfriendly behavior is what it seems.  Know the effects of trauma.  Learn to recognize the ways it manifests so you can effectively communicate with affected residents and adjust interaction, procedures and/or protocol when necessary or indicated.  The entire community stands to benefit. 

Tip #10: When a conflict arises with or among residents, consider mediation. 

What the world needs now is more facilitated discussion.  Nothing is more healing or better at fostering community cohesion than an honest discussion that began as a conflict that evolved into a mutually satisfactory resolution.  A good mediator is worth his/her/their weight in gold.  Next time you experience a conflict, consider it a great opportunity to give mediation a try.   

Conclusion

The social glue or bond that holds a community together reflects the extent to which residents know and care about each other.  Fostering the sense of cohesion in our respective communities is possible and practical.  A little attention can go a long way.  If even some of us do our part, we might just save the world.


[1] https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/research-areas/rental-housing

Phyllis A. Roestenberg is an attorney, mediator and trainer in Colorado.  Her practice emphasizes peaceful conflict resolution, fair housing and residential tenancies.  For more information visit: www.mediateeverything.com or call: (303) 955.8417.

[2] Williams et al. BMC Public Health (2020) 20:985 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09078-6.

[3]https://nij.ojp.gov/library/publications/neighborhoods-and-crime-collective-efficacy-and-social-cohesion-miami-dade-0

[4] Craig D. Uchida, Marc L. Swatt, Shellie E. Solomon, Sean Varano, “Neighborhoods and Crime: Collective Efficacy and Social Cohesion in Miami-Dade County,” (March 2014).

[5] https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/knowledge-base/resources/community-cohesion-and-participation-practical-framework

[6] Craig D. Uchida, Marc L. Swatt, Shellie E. Solomon, Sean Varano, “Neighborhoods and Crime: Collective Efficacy and Social Cohesion in Miami-Dade County,” (March 2014).

[7] https://sustain.ubc.ca/sites/default/files/2017-45_Supporting%20Neighbourly%20Vancouver%20Multi-Unit%20Buildings_Tavakoli.pdf

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