Featured in the February 2015 Newsletter.
What is your role at Northeastern?
Ryan Anderson (R.A.): I am an Assistant Director of Residential Life. My primary responsibilities are in the hiring and training of professional and graduate staff members. I also supervise six Residence Directors in a primarily first-year area.
Owen Wyatt (O.W.): My official job title is ‘Counselor/Psychotherapist’. Along with my behavioral health colleagues at UHCS, I provide psychological counseling services to the Northeastern University student body.
What are some of the most common roommate difficulties students face?
R.A.: Regardless of the issue, the root of nearly all roommate conflicts seems to be poor communication. Roommates tend to put off confrontation until the situation is near a boiling point, which further complicates matters. The best way to handle issues is to address them as they arise and approach them from a calm perspective. We frequently see issues around sleep/study time such as roommates staying up too late or coming in late, thereby disrupting their roommate. We also see problems with overnight guests where a roommate will have a guest over without their roommate’s permission, which many people don’t realize is a policy violation.
O.W.: Interpersonal conflicts are rarely one-dimensional. Typically disagreements are co-created by the interplay of individuals’ distinct histories, experiences, and expectations of others. This blending of unique backgrounds and perspectives can contribute to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. In terms of roommate difficulties, disputes can originate from just about anything; however, some of the more common contributing factors include: noise, messy living habits, fundamentally different lifestyles, poor personal hygiene, mismatched sleeping patterns, discrepancies of values and customs, borrowing without permission, lack of respect for personal space, an unwillingness to compromise, significant others, division of chores, lack of follow through, and in general, feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or disrespected.
What would be your first suggestion if a student is experiencing trouble with a roommate?
R.A: My first suggestion would be to try to talk with the roommate about the problem. If they are uncomfortable with this, going to the RA for support and advice is always a good move.
O.W.: Don’t ignore the problem. The odds of an amicable resolution will increase if an issue can be addressed early on. Conversely, the longer frustrations fester, the more difficult it becomes to compromise, which may increase conflicts and deepen resentments.
When does an ‘annoying roommate’ cross the line over into a domestic violence situation? What resources are available for students in these situations?
O.W.: The line is crossed as soon as an individual’s basic human rights have been violated. Extreme examples of such boundary crossing are physical or sexual violence; however, verbal threats, being made to feel unsafe or an inability to meet one’s responsibilities as a result of a roommate’s behaviors also qualify. There are immediate campus resources available for students facing such scenarios, including: ViSION, UHCS, OSCCR, Residential Life, NUPD, and OIDI.
How do you suggest starting these ‘difficult’ conversations with a roommate?
- Approach your roommate in private.
- Mutually agree upon a good time for both of you to talk. If one of you feels rushed or caught off guard, it will be more difficult to communicate effectively.
- Embrace a mutual purpose and offer respect to create an atmosphere that is safe to talk.
- Attack the conflict, not your roommate. Verbally assaulting your roommate will only cause further conflict, and chances are neither of you will get what you want.
- Each roommate should be given a chance to present what she or he feels the problem is.
- Remember that we all see the world differently and every story has two sides.
What are ways to handle the stress of a difficult roommate situation?
- Again, don’t avoid the problem. The intensity of your stress will only increase the longer a given issue persists. Consider what are the risks of initiating a conversation? What will happen if you don’t?
- Before beginning a difficult conversation, you should first have a conversation with yourself. It’s important to become grounded in what’s going on inside you before including your roommate.
- You may want to check in with yourself: What is the issue? Why is it bothering you? What are your assumptions? What emotions are attached to the situation? What is the purpose in having the conversation? How will you start it?
- Once you’re clear on you, then you can focus your attention on your roommate.
- If you find that you and your roommate are becoming too frustrated with each other, agree to take space from the discussion to reflect and regroup. This will afford you each time to generate feedback that is not hurtful and rooted in anger.
How should you handle being confronted about your own behaviors?
- Be patient. Listen to your roommate, and validate their point of view. If acknowledgment of your roommate’s feelings is not offered, their frustrations and defensiveness will likely escalate.
- Focus on personal accountability, not blame. Personal accountability is about accepting responsibility for your own actions or inactions; blame is about making judgments about your roommate’s behaviors and personality traits. Utilizing this approach is likely to diffuse defensiveness on both sides of the conversation.
- Listen with curiosity and care, not judgment. Instead of wanting to win an argument and get your way, attempt to understand what has happened from your roommate’s point of view.
- Ask open-ended questions (e.g., “Tell me more”, “Help me understand”) and paraphrase your roommate’s statements for clarity.
- Be direct and use “I statements” (e.g., “I feel”, “I believe”). Statements that start with “You” sound accusatory and blaming and will likely lead to defensiveness.
- If there is a roommate agreement, revisit it together. Which of your guidelines are working and which of them need to be revised?
- Remember that a solution will probably involve mutual compromise. The solution may not be your ideal scenario, but it should be an improvement on the current state of things.
What options do students have if they are experiencing trouble with a roommate? What role can RAs play in mediating conflict?
R.A.: It’s always a good idea to talk with your RA about any roommate difficulty early on. The RA can act as a resource and provide advice and they can also meet with both roommates to help them work it out. Another great resource is the Residence Director, or RD. The RD is a full-time, live-in staff member that supervises the RAs and provides support to residents living in the halls.
Any tips on choosing roommates?
R.A.: I generally advise against best friends living together. I’ve seen many friendships in turmoil because two people got along really well, but they had never lived together and eventually realize that they are better off as friends than roommates. Also, not living with a best friend gives you a place to go when you want to get out of your own space.
O.W.: Know that whomever you end up rooming with, it’s not always going to be perfect. Be realistic. Living with roommates isn’t always easy and sharing a living space can be stressful. Conflicts of some kind are bound to arise, even if you and your roommate have an established friendship beforehand. This is a normal part of living with someone else. Entering a roommate relationship with the understanding that some challenges are inevitable will help to ease the navigation of conflicts when they do emerge. By communicating early on about what you and your roommate expect from each other, you may be able to minimize problems before they begin.
Resource and Further Reading
Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most. New York: Penguin.