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Roommate Conflict: With or without Covid

It has been a LONG pandemic, which has required each of us to shift expectations and behaviors. It’s 2022 now and we have at our disposal all the lessons of 2020. We know that masking, distancing, testing, and handwashing work to minimize the spread. We also have the protections offered by vaccination. Though it may not be foolproof against infection or transmission, studies have shown the vaccine protects against severe illness and death with impressive efficacy. 


Still, not everyone has the same kinds of practices and there are many different opinions on what appropriate behaviors should be. When living in close quarters such as dorms, conflict over how to share space and take precautions is likely. Even in non-pandemic years, conflict among roommates is run of the mill, but there are ways you can minimize misunderstandings, escalations, and find resolution if you are willing to face it with clear, direct communication. 


Set agreements and expectations early on: 

I’m sure it’s attractive to want to be the “cool as a cucumber” roomie who can’t get ruffled by small stuff, but let’s be real: it’s unlikely most of us have that kind of flexibility or stamina in small shared spaces. Instead, plan a conversation with your roommates after everyone is relatively settled in. It’s a great opportunity to explore individual needs, expectations, and brainstorm agreements. Encourage each other to think beforehand about what they might need to bring up so they are ready to participate and collaborate.


Some topics that might be explored: 

  • Vaccination statuses
  • Masking practices
  • Guests (and their vaccination status and masking practices)
  • Food sharing or not?
  • Quiet hours
  • Cleanliness and chores
  • Expectations around shared space (i.e. music/tv on headphones or not?)
  • How to address future conflicts or disagreements


This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a starting point and understanding each other and how to live well together. It also gives you practice for the possibility of new agreements that may come up in the future. People’s needs change and it might be beneficial to revisit these conversations or revise agreements with your roommate(s). The more you escalate, the harder reaching understanding and resolution becomes. Even when we set out to circumvent disagreements, they bubble up anyway. Intervening early makes a difference! The following are some tips on how to handle conflict together.


Don’t avoid it: 

It might feel scary to talk about “it”, or maybe you resent having to “be the bigger person” and initiate a discussion, but it will likely save you time and emotional energy you would have spent in secret. Tearing off the bandaid can be really simple:


“Hey, it seems like things might be off for some reason. Maybe we should schedule a time to talk about it and see if we can figure out how we can make things feel better for each other at the dorm.”


Reflect first: 

Before having a conversation to discuss a conflict, it might be useful to sit down and write or think through what is really bothering you and trying to move away from finding a place to lay blame. Instead, think about what your needs are and how they might be met. This step might be especially helpful if the conflict has escalated beyond a single incident or disagreement.


If dirty dishes or disarray in the dorm are on your mind you might bring up how this impacts you. There’s a reason it bothers you! What is it? Tell them that, whether it’s because it makes it difficult to think or study or because it makes your home space feel less welcoming at the end of a demanding day.


Use I-Statements: 

I-Statements are a form of communication that identify how you were affected by something or someone. They might look something like this:


“I felt frustrated and stressed out when you woke me up at 2:00 AM by watching a movie without your headphones last night. I had a test this morning and I really wanted to get a good night of sleep for it. In the future, could you wear headphones or watch your movies somewhere else if it’s after midnight.” ⇐ This identifies how the speaker felt, why it was an important issue for them, and requests a change to avoid similar situations in the future. 


A You-statement for the same situation might look like: “You are so inconsiderate. I probably failed my test today because you don’t think of anyone else.” This blames and also is more likely to invite defensiveness. It also fails to identify how the speaker was affected or think of paths out of conflict.


Watch out for the You-Statement dressed up like an I-Statement: 

“I feel like you are an inconsiderate person.” It may start with an I, but it still blames and does not have all the same components of a true I-Statement. 


Listen to Understand and don’t jump to blame:

It might be tempting to air out all of your grievances, lay blame, and bask in the glory of being right but it’s not an effective conflict resolution strategy. Instead of listening to make your rebuttals, try to understand where the other person is coming from. Listen for what may have led to certain decisions or behaviors. Sometimes it helps to repeat your understanding of what they said back to them to make sure you understood them correctly. If you’re right, they’ll agree and if you got a part wrong they’ll likely clarify for you. 

Identify Needs:

Make room for both people to identify what is important to each of them. One person might need a lot of quiet time at home to study while another person may find frequent socializing to be essential. Try to meet both people’s needs as much as possible. Sometimes needs might seem oppositional, but there is usually a compromise of some kind.


Brainstorm together:

After you’ve identified what is important for each person, you might brainstorm to figure out how to best accommodate each need. Be clear that just because you throw an idea out there, it’s up for discussion. Lay as much out on the table and then pick out what can work for both of you. Remember, compromise is what you can both live with, though it may not always be your ideal agreement.


Apologies work: 

Apologizing isn’t easy, but a good apology goes a long way. If you did something that hurt your roommate in some way, apologizing can show that you recognize the impact of your actions (or inaction). For a blueprint to a great apology check out this article written by Mia Mingus.