If it weren’t for your roommates, life would be pretty perfect, right?
“They play their music too loud.”
“They stay up every night until 4 a.m.”
“Their boyfriend has been over for three nights in a row.”
“They leave their dirty clothes everywhere.”
If you’ve voiced one or more of these frustrations, you have probably lived with at least one roommate. If you haven’t lived with a roommate, you probably have a friend who does, and you more than likely heard them vent their frustrations over their less than ideal living situation.
Handling conflict within a living space can be a difficult and sometimes delicate situation to maneuver in, whether you are a freshman sharing a room with another person for the first time or a senior with three housemates and a pet cat you’re technically not allowed to have. No one wants to accidentally offend the people they share a home with, but addressing issues in an assertive yet compassionate manner is the ticket to avoiding even bigger conflicts in the future.
As a trained conflict mediator, I want to equip you with the skills to handle your own roommate conflicts whenever they arise. While these methods are not foolproof, they are more likely to preserve friendships and ensure happier living situations, unlike the lasting emotional scars that passive-aggression and outright hostility can have in a space as inescapable as a dorm room or apartment. While many of the tips listed below sound like common sense, putting them into practice can be one of the hardest things a college student faces.
1. Talk it out
Easier said than done, right? One of the most important things to keep in mind when dealing with a concern or potential conflict in your dorm room is to address the issue early and openly with your roommate.
With a majority of the concerns you have, if you don’t say anything, odds are your roommate will never know something is wrong and will continue to engage in behaviors that you find frustrating. When your concerns are unaddressed, little frustrations pile up on one another for days, weeks or even months, and they have the unfortunate tendency to blow up in unexpected ways. Now everyone is upset, your roommate feels attacked for no reason and you feel like the bad guy.
An important way to speak to others when bringing up a concern is to use “I” statements. It sounds a bit childish, but bear with me. Instead of saying, “Taylor, your friends are really obnoxious whenever they come over,” try instead, “Taylor, I feel frustrated when you bring your friends over when I’m trying to do homework.” Or maybe “Alex, I feel like I can’t be comfortable in our room when your girlfriend is here all the time” instead of “Alex, you have to stop bringing Jessica over.”
The important thing is to make it about yourself (lucky you). Instead of pointing out the other person’s shortcomings or bad habits as you see them, tell them how their actions make you feel. This often gets to the root of the matter more quickly and easily than whining at them. Calling Taylor’s friends obnoxious just makes Taylor mad and also avoids addressing the real issue, which is that you need a quiet space to do your homework.
Another effective way to handle roommate conflicts is to use active listening techniques. Take the time to concentrate on what your roommate is saying, and respond to whatever they are telling you, both to make sure they feel heard and to show that you understand what they’re saying. Paraphrase or summarize back to them what they are telling you. If you’ve misunderstood, it allows them to clarify what they mean and prevent any further miscommunication down the road.
Ask open-ended questions that give space for your roommate to respond freely. Don’t bombard them with questions, forcing them into corners to try to defend themselves. They will get defensive and be less willing to work out a compromise with you. Active listening can be challenging, especially when the person you are arguing with is not actively listening back. Whether you’re bringing up a new concern or addressing one brought to you by your roommate, try using this technique. You’ll get better results faster!
I take back what I said earlier about making it about yourself … at least to a certain degree. Something that is often overlooked when resolving an argument in the heat of the moment is the importance of a compromise. To compromise is the willingness of each party to make a concession at the expense of the self for the benefit of the whole. That’s pretty much just a fancy way of saying to get a lot, you need to give a little.
When sharing a dorm room or an apartment with others, there will always be differences of opinion on how the space should be used. Although it seems that society is constantly telling us that to compromise is to accept defeat, the reality is that we can’t always get exactly what we want. If you decide to only focus on yourself and your goals, there is no potential for any kind of forward motion. All you get are two (or more) post-high-school, pre-real-world adults with unrealistic expectations of personal success.
4. Seek outside help
When all else fails and your problem looms much too large for you to handle yourself, ask for help. It is never too late to ask for help. Many dorms have resident advisors (RAs) or dorm monitors who are trained to provide conflict mediation services. Plus, they probably genuinely want to help and will be grateful that you came to them seeking advice. Sometimes all you need is that third person in the room to look at things objectively and cut through all the tiptoeing to help you see the problem for what it is.
Conflict is a fact of life, and living with roommates is a fact of college. Why not just take out two birds with one stone and develop your own conflict mediation skills while maintaining a positive, healthy relationship with your roommate(s) at the same time? Don’t sit on your issues and let them fester, but don’t be passive-aggressive either; that just creates more opportunities for stress and anxiety, which college already provides plenty of.
My mantra as a mediator is this: You don’t have to be best friends with your roommate. You don’t even have to be good friends. You just need to cohabitate peacefully and respectfully with one another. The best part? You’ll probably get a new one next year.