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Managing College Roommate Conflict in Small Spaces- Do and Don’t Tips

argue-1Roommate conflict in college can be difficult whether you choose one another or matched randomly. Navigating through disputes constructively is a must-have skill. My freshmen year of undergrad I lived on-campus. I was planning to live on-campus all four years, but by the end of my spring semester, I had decided to move home and finish out my undergrad education as a commuter. I made this decision based on several reasons, but my ultimate deciding factor was my roommate Bianca.

The university housing department chose my roommate and throughout the fall semester, Bianca and I got along great! Once we returned from winter break, though, our roommate relationship took a drastic turn.

Bianca and I had signed a roommate agreement required by the university at the start of freshmen year that outlined what we expected from each other. Some examples of our agreement were:

  • If you plan on having your significant other stay the night, ask your roommate beforehand.
  • Quiet time will be between 3 pm – 5 pm and 7pm-9pm, during these periods, noise levels must be kept low.
  • Respect one another’s belongings and space.

Bianca broke all three in the second semester. She initially asked if her boyfriend could stay, but then she stopped asking once his visits became more frequent. Bianca started having friends in our dorm room during quiet time, where they watched television, played games, and listened to music. During the second semester, Bianca and I were taking statistics with the same strict professor at different times. The professor during exams allowed us to use our class notes for reference. Bianca, who had been skipping class to hang out with her boyfriend, asked to borrow my notes to copy before one of the exams, I reluctantly agreed wanting to avoid a confrontation. I later discovered that rather than copying my notes, she took them to class with her and used them. Luckily, my teacher did not find out or both she and I would have failed.

I should note, at this time in my life, I was not comfortable with confrontation and usually tried to avoid it at all costs. By the end of the second semester, I was miserable and driving home every chance I could because of my unwillingness to address my roommate problems.

Unfortunately, bad college roommate stories come a dime a dozen. Now, I have acquired knowledge of how to manage conflict constructively, and I am going reflect on what I could have done to better my situation. Hopefully, if you find yourself in a similar situation these Do and Don’t Tips can assist you!

  • DO talk to your roommate, DON’T avoid confrontation.
    • If Bianca and I spoke when the issues started, I could have made her aware that I was bothered, and we could have resolved them. Instead, I avoided addressing my grievances and as a result, I was miserable and annoyed.
  • DO be honest and upfront, DON’T sidestep your concerns, needs, and wants.
    • I should have been honest and upfront with Bianca when we first started living together about my pet peeves. I refrained from disclosing them because I did not want her to think I was a high maintenance, roommate.
  • DO have a roommate agreement. DON’T assume you and your roommate value the same things and think the same way.
    • Even though our roommate agreement was unsuccessful, I still believe that it is important to have one, that way everything is on paper and neither you nor your roommate can claim you did not know.
  • Do include specific details into your Roommate Agreement with solutions, DON’T make your Roommate Agreement too general.
    • Make sure to add to your Roommate Agreement that each of you will raise issues with the other before they fester. If issues cannot be resolved, then roommates agree to talk with the Resident Assistant (RA) together.
  • DO enlist your Resident Assistant (RA) if necessary. DON’T avoid seeking out their advice because you think it is tattling.
    • RA’s are there for a reason, even if you don’t want them to intervene you can still get great tips from them on how to best address a bad situation.

I could have had a much different college experience had I addressed issues as they arose instead of avoiding them and letting them fester.

Abigail Clark M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management


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Back to School: Tackling Roommate Disputes

Roommate ProblemsWhen I was pursing undergrad, my friends often came to me with roommate conflicts. When you prepare to go away to college, you talk to your parents about the supplies you will need, how bills will be paid, and map out your plans for when you will visit again. But you don’t talk to your parents about what you will do when your roommate is messy, eats your food, or just has a different lifestyle than you.

Universities and Community Colleges have prep classes that offer guidance on adjusting to college life and highlight the differences between high school and undergrad, but what is often missing from the curriculum is conflict management. They don’t tell you how to have a difficult conversation regarding the upkeep of your dorm, the policies on visitors, or rules for food in the refrigerator.

Some other roommate conflicts college students may encounter are:
• Lack of privacy
• Borrowing without permission
• Study time vs party time
• Lifestyle differences

The question is how do you resolve these differences when experiencing them for the first time? Colleges often have conflict resolution mechanisms in place such as the Resident Advisor (RA) or the Student Resources Office. Resident advisors are usually students responsible for fostering a community atmosphere in dorms and resident halls. They can serve as peer counselors and enforce policies to ensure the safety of students living in the facility. Student Resource Offices strive to help students succeed at the institute and provide a wealth of resources ranging from job and internship placement to resume building workshops. Academic Advisors and counselors can sometimes be found in Student Resource Offices.

Some students may take advantage of their RA’s and Student Resource Offices. However, others shy away from these third parties and try to solve conflicts on their own. Here are some tips that may be helpful to you to reduce potential roommate conflicts:
• Check your false assumptions and listen to the roommate’s perspective. For example, Anna came home at 4am on the eve of your Biology final. The next evening you confront her about her lack of respect when you were sleeping. What you didn’t know was that Anna was rear-ended coming home from the library and had spent the wee hours of the morning waiting for a tow truck.
• Be transparent. Your roommate only knows what you tell them. Another typical example is you are homesick. You make an excuse and cancel your plans to go out with your roommate because you spent the last of your money on comfort foods. Your roommate’s feelings are hurt. Be careful not to assume they know how you feel.
• Set guidelines or roommate rules. Discuss and decide upfront if you are going to rotate buying groceries, when the latest visitor is allowed over, and determine the rules for sharing and borrowing of property among other issues important to each of you.

Conflict is inevitable but the key to effective conflict management is to address the issues head on by checking your false assumptions, being transparent, and setting guidelines. Don’t let your disputes tackle you, being proactive will not only strengthen the quality of interaction between you and your roommate but also prevent conflict from making your living arrangement uncomfortable. Remember, if you don’t voice your concerns, you don’t give your roommate a chance to address them.

Now go out there and have a great start to your school year!

By Tracy Culbreath
Graduate Student, University of Baltimore – Negotiation and Conflict Management Program

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