Roommate Conflicts: Confrontation, Communication, Mediation
Living with roommates isn’t always easy. Sharing a living space may be stressful, and conflicts may arise. Sometimes situations that work at the beginning of the year become more difficult as the year goes on; remember that college is a time when students grow and change which can certainly impact even the healthiest of roommate relationships. It is perfectly normal to have roommate conflicts.
Many conflicts can be resolved easily with mature and respectful conversationbetween roommates. Other conflicts may be more difficult to resolve and may require assistance through a formal mediation process. In extreme cases, conflicts may not be able to be resolved resulting in a room change for one or both roommates. It is never our desire to force students to live in a room where the climate is wrought with tension and frustration or where conflict cannot be resolved. We do, however, expect students to make a sincere and collaborative effort to work through the conflict, communicate clearly the concerns, and develop strong conflict management or coping skills in the process.
Residence Life offers a number of resources to students facing roommate conflicts. Roommate conflicts are initially handled at the hall level by the Resident Assistant. Residence Directors and Community Advisors often guide the RAs through each roommate conflict. Students seeking assistance should begin by talking with their RA..
Roommate conflicts and room changes are not addressed by the Associate Dean of Student Affairs or the Assistant Director of Residence Life unless the hall staff requires assistance in doing so. It is also important to note that the College expects students, not parents, to work through the processes outlined below.
What is a Roommate Conflict?
We find it helpful to use the following definition when trying to determine if a roommate conflict exists: wants in collision. This can seem as simple as “I want to go to bed at the same time as my roommate so that I am not awakened when she comes into the room after I’ve fallen asleep.” Sometimes, the collision involves value systems. For example, one roommate may feel quite comfortable having frequent visitors to the room – intimate visitors or groups of friends; while, the second roommate wants the room to be a safe haven from social interaction with others.
It is important to note that this definition makes clear that roommate conflicts are not a reflection of the character of either student involved. Rather, the conflict occurs because two different students hold two different views on what is happening in the room. More often, the conflict arises when one or both roommates do not have the confidence or communication skills to confront the problem.
Navigating Roommate Conflict for Students
Communicating with or Confronting your Roommate(s)
If you start to notice that your roommate does not want to talk with you, may get annoyed with you over little things, may leave the room when you are there, you should recognize these as signs of potential roommate issues. If a problem is addressed early, there is a better chance of it being worked out amicably. Most roommate conflicts are the result of miscommunication or, in some cases, a total lack of communication. If you can communicate effectively, it will be much easier to develop a comfortable living environment for yourself and your roommates.
How to address the issue:
- Approach your roommate in private.
- Confirm that this is a good time for both of you to talk. If either of you feels rushed or blindsided the conversation will be less effective.
- Be direct. Discuss the issue with regard to behaviors rather than personality traits. This tactic is less likely to put your roommate on the defensive.
- Be patient. Listen to your roommate and remember that there are two sides to every story. As you are listening, try to put yourself in your roommate's shoes.
- Each person should be given an opportunity to share their perspective on the roommate relationship and potential areas of tension.
- Revisit your roommate agreement. First-year students are required to complete roommate agreements within the first three weeks of the semester. Upperclass students are encouraged to do so as well and can obtain a form by contacting your RA. You should have it available in the room or the RAs will have a copy on file in the RD Office. Which of your guidelines are working and which of them need to be reconsidered?
- Remember that a solution will probably involve each person giving something and getting something. The solution may not be your ideal scenario, but it should be an improvement on the current state of things.
Healthy communication tips:
- Talk to your roommate directly when something is bothering you. Don’t discuss it behind their back because this can cause a breakdown in trust between you.
- Be direct. Be clear about what is bothering you. If you don’t tell your roommate that there is a problem they won’t be able to do anything about it.
- Remember that communication works two ways: talking and listening. Neither one is effective without the other.
- If you create a win-win situation, then the conflict is more likely to be resolved. Evaluate the needs of both sides before a solution is proposed, and make sure the solution is acceptable to both parties.
- Respect each other’s differences. Difference is a part of life. Get to know each other and establish common ground.
- Avoid responding from your emotions. Criticism is bound to happen and your natural reaction is going to be to criticize back, but that is only going to compound the problem. Learning to accept criticism is going to help you communicate and live with your roommate. If you both find that you are approaching the limit and things are not being resolved, agree to take some time away from the discussion to cool down.
In difficult discussions, such as roommate conflicts, it is very helpful to have an unbiased third party to help mediate the discussion. Our Resident Assistants are trained mediators, with good experience helping roommates come up with solutions to their conflicts. If you find that you and your roommate are having difficulty resolving your conflict, you should definitely approach your RA to arrange mediation.
We believe that Roommate Mediation is paramount to the learning process and the development of conflict management skills. As such, we require all students involved in a roommate conflict to participate in mediation before changing rooms.
How Mediation Works:
- Contact your RA, either by email or in person, to explain the situation and to request mediation.
- Your RA will contact all roommates to find a time that works best for everyone. Most mediation meetings can be completed in less than one hour. At times, a second meeting may need to be scheduled to work through issues thoroughly.
- The RA and a co-mediator (another RA from your building or the RD/CA) will begin the conversation. The RA will explain the ground rules; discuss confidentiality and the mediation process.
- In the Issues Phase of mediation, the roommates will each be given an opportunity to present the issues as they see them in the roommate relationship.
- In the Understanding Phase of mediation, the roommates will talk with each other about the issues presented in the previous phase. Each will have the opportunity to respond to the other’s perception, share how they feel about what the other said, and share their own understanding of the situation as presented by the roommate.
- In the Agreement Phase of mediation, the roommates will offer possible solutions that will address the issues presented earlier. Solutions will involve compromise and negotiation. The mediators will guide this process, but will not suggest agreement items to the roommates. It is critical that the students involved in conflict own and fully agree with solution(s) presented.
- The mediators will type up the agreement and will schedule a follow up meeting for two weeks after the original meeting. The follow up meeting will be used to determine if the agreement will be effective in resolving the conflict.
Remember, although the RA is a trained mediator, they are not magicians. Some roommate conflicts require a number of mediations before a workable solution can be found. In other cases, the roommate relationship may not be mended even after an honest attempt at mediation has been made. In those cases, and only in those cases, a room change may be the best answer.
Resources for Families
We realize that sending your student to college is a time of tremendous transition for your family. All students (and their families) go through an adjustment period and experience many ups and downs while living away from home. There are many resources at the College to help your student manage community life at Westminster College.
Here, in the Office of Residence Life, our preference is to deal directly with the student. This enables us to establish a relationship with your student and helps to get to the crux of the issues more efficiently. We do welcome parent input and questions at any time. Our goal is to provide parents with resources which they can pass on to their student to help them help themselves. As a college, our relationship is with the student, and it is important that we include them in the process, which could include copying them on e-mail responses, contacting them before returning your call, asking the Residence Life staff to follow-up on an issue parents bring to our attention.
It is important that students have support and encouragement from home while being allowed to mature through their own experiences. By all means, be there for your student as a sounding board, but let them handle their own problems as much as possible. We know this can be hard, but your student’s success is dependent on their own ability to function independently.
The information below is provided so that you can be an informed resource for your student.
Helpful Hints for Assisting your Student if a Roommate Conflict Arises
Many parents tell us that their student is “just not a conflict person” or their student “prefers to avoid conflict.” Conflict is a natural part of life and we do well to develop skills which help us manage conflict respectfully, advocate for ourselves well, and resolve minor conflicts before they blossom into something much larger. Our roommate conflict and mediation process is designed to infuse learning these skills into these educational life experiences.
Families are instrumental in providing support and assistance to their student. By listening to your student, you can be a sounding board, providing support and perspective. You can help your student to understand their role in the process and empower them to affect their situation.
- Assure your student that having a roommate conflict is not a rare occurrence. Living with others requires ongoing communication. Most students are able to resolve conflicts in a way that meets everyone’s needs.
- Listen to your student as they explain the conflict; ask if it could be a misunderstanding rather than an intentional dispute.
- Find out if your student completed a roommate agreement, and whether or not they have reviewed it lately. (All new students are required to complete a roommate agreement within the first three weeks of the semester. This is meant to be a living document that changes and evolves as students learn more about their roommates and themselves).
- Ask whether they have sat down and had a heart to heart talk with their roommate. Students often think they have communicated their feelings without having actually expressed them.
- Don’t be afraid to question whether your student may have had a role in creating the conflict. Let them know you are not criticizing only suggesting a little self-examination. Remind them that every conflict has more than one side. Encourage them to consider why their roommate might see the situation from a different point of view.
- Ask if they have contacted their RA to request roommate mediation. RAs are trained in conflict mediation, and we generally find that an unbiased third party can help students come up with solutions that they may not have discovered on their own. In more challenging situations, a series of mediations may be necessary. Please encourage your student to communicate with the RA if they feel that further intervention is needed.
- If your student is looking for additional information regarding roommate communication, please refer them to this page or refer them to their RD/CA.
Please understand that roommate conflicts and room changes are not addressed by the Associate Dean of Student Affairs or the Assistant Director of Residence Life. It is also important to note that the College expects students, not parents, to work through the roommate mediation process.
Sometimes, roommate conflicts do result in the student deciding to change rooms. Residence Life staff will work with students to find new room accommodations on campus. Students are required to participate in roommate mediation before a room change is approved. This is to ensure that students have the opportunity to intentionally engage in learning conflict management skills and to ensure all roommates have the experience of attempting to compromise and work out a solution, which is an important part of community life.
The role of Residence Life staff is not to determine which roommate is at fault for the demise of the relationship. Rather our role is (a) to assist in the communication which is aimed at resolving conflict and (b) to make logistical arrangements for room changes when necessary. This means that we will work with students who come to us to move into a new room. We will not make their roommate move unless this is an agreed upon solution reached during mediation or unless the roommate has been found responsible for violating the roommate agreement or mediation agreement. The College’s judicial system is used to determine responsibility in these matters. If the complaining student desires a roommate change, but does not wish to engage the judicial process and the College is asked to determine who will move, the complaining student will be asked to move to a new room.
We hope these tips will help you to help your student initiate a solution to a roommate conflict if it should arise.