Conflicts can be very common between roommates, especially now that residence halls only allow one guest in a room at a time. Students are often in the same room with the same person for most of the day.
Many of these conflicts start as simple annoyances or inconveniences, like a roommate not cleaning up after themselves. These can fester and cause roommates to become resentful, said Jacquelyn Bleak, a lecturer in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies.
She said that people’s minds can play tricks on them with these annoyances. They can take another roommate’s messiness as a personal attack against them. They can personalize it and make assumptions about the reasons for the roommate’s mess, like the roommate is leaving messes to attack them.
This often leads to a roommate moving out without ever letting the other roommate know what was wrong.
“I hear all the time, someone’s roommate will have moved out and they’re like, ‘I didn’t even know there was a problem. I just came home and all their stuff was gone,’” Bleak said. “It happens every day.”
This outcome can be avoided if roommates initiate conversations to bring the issues to light and resolve them. People often want to avoid conflict so they may go to great lengths to avoid having these conversations, she said.
“We really just spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid the conflict, when, if we had just had that awkward conversation,” she said, “perhaps it wouldn’t have escalated into me needing to actually physically move out of the space.”
These conversations can be rewarding. Here are 10 tips on having successful conflict resolution conversations with roommates:
1. Have the conversation face-to-face.
It can be easiest to have the conversation over text, but it may not be the best option. Bleak said this can lead to a lot of miscommunication, because, as some experts believe, over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.
It’s best to have the conversation face-to-face. If that’s impossible, the next best way to have the conversation would be over FaceTime and, if FaceTime isn’t possible, over a phone call.
2. Change locations.
It can be difficult to have the conversation when you’re in the same environment you were originally annoyed in. If the issue was cleanliness, it can be stressful to talk to them about their mess when you’re staring right at it.
Bleak suggests changing to a more neutral location outside of the room, like on a walk through nature. Walks can be very helpful, because the participants won’t be staring at each other, so they may feel less defensive.
3. Set ground rules for the conversation.
Setting ground rules for the conversation can also increase the chances of it being successful, Bleak said. This can include no “name-calling.” It can keep the conversation on-track.
4. Have the conversation when you’re in a good place.
It can be difficult to have the conversation if you’re not in a good place emotionally or physically. Postpone the conversation if you’re not feeling well. Don’t come to your roommate to talk if you just pulled an “all-nighter,” are tired or are hungry.
“‘Hanger’ is real. Have a snack or have a meal with your roommate while you're having the conversation,” she said.
5. Accept that it’s going to be uncomfortable.
These conversations can be so difficult to have because people think they are going to be uncomfortable. It can activate our “Flight, Fight or Freeze” response.
“Our body responds in the same way as you were chased by a bear when you’re having a roommate conflict and that’s why sometimes when you’re in a conflict with someone, it feels like you’re dying because your body is kind of telling you that you are,” Bleak said.
Accepting that it will be uncomfortable to yourself, and even acknowledging it to your roommate during the conversation, can make it go significantly better.
“Usually those conversations go significantly better than we actually think they will because we spend so much of our energy amping ourselves up, like, ‘Oh, this conversation couldn’t possibly go well, like I’m nervous to talk to them about it,’” Bleak said. “Just bite the bullet and it probably won’t be as bad as you think it is.”
Listening can cause another person to drop defensiveness and work to make a difficult conversation successful, Bleak said.
She said that if your roommate is becoming upset, first catch if you’re becoming defensive too. Then, ask questions about what the person is upset about. Be curious about it. Ask open-ended questions about it and be engaged in what they’re saying.
They still may be upset with you, but may feel better afterwards because you understand them and made them feel validated.
Do not just listen to be able to reply or just talk about yourself. Actually listen to them, Bleak said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying ‘just listen and everything will be okay and you’ll never have problems.’ But if it’s possible for you to do it, sometimes it can make a huge difference,” she said.
7. Be specific about the issue.
People should speak to be understood, Bleak said. You may want to be vague when addressing a problem to not offend anyone, but this may be confusing to your roommate.
“Be specific, because that can clarify any misunderstanding about what the problem actually is,” she said.
8. Become comfortable with silence.
Most conversations have moments of silence. It can be difficult to sit in it, especially in difficult conversations, Bleak said. People want to fill the silence, but it may not be the best idea.
“Silence actually can provide space to think of new ideas and reflect upon what’s been said and think about what you’re going to say next,” she said.
9. Practice “I” statements.
During the conversation, practicing “I” statements can make expressing a problem easier and minimize defensiveness in your roommate, Bleak said. This means framing the problem as something you’re struggling with and not a personal attack on the roommate.
Instead of saying “you’re a slob,” say, “I’m struggling with the cleanliness of this room and it’s impacting me,” she said.
10. Bring another person into it.
If you’ve tried to have the conversation and it didn’t work out well, try reaching out to another person to help mediate the next conversation. In residence halls, this can be an RA or GA. These people are here to support students, Bleak said.
“Usually, a third party, if you’re not able to do that conversation one-on-one successfully, does the trick,” she said.
Students often don’t want to seek mediation in their roommate conflicts. Bleak saw this in her years as a developer of Kent State’s Student Mediation Services, offered by the Office of Student Conduct, until it was defunded this year.
“The first year that I was on campus, [mediation service] wasn’t required and I could count the number of students that were referred to me on one hand,” she said. “Fast forward three years, we started requiring it. Basically, if students expressed that they wanted to have a roommate change because of conflict, you have to at least visit the mediation office. And that year that it was required, nearly 900 students were referred to me that year.”
If this still doesn’t work, Bleak suggests asking another RA to mediate.
Nathan Mehring is a reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUPPORT STUDENT MEDIA
Hi, I’m Lauren Sasala, a senior journalism student from Toledo. I’m also the editor in chief of The Kent Stater and KentWired this semester. My staff and I are committed to bringing you the most important news about Kent State and the Kent community. We are full-time students and hard-working journalists. While we get support from the student media fee and earned revenue such as advertising, both of those continue to decline. Your generous gift of any amount will help enhance our student experience as we grow into working professionals. Please go here to donate.