The College Series: What I wish I knew about dealing with roommates!

Coping with College Roommates

I remember missing my bedroom from home during my first quarter of my freshmen year of college. I went from being the only person in my room to living with 3 other women. It was tense and not all of our personalities fit well. We started off polite enough but soon we devolved into yelling matches. None of us were bad people, we were just in a strange new situation without a lot of understanding of how to address the conflict we kept running into. Here is a list of 5 things I wish I knew when I was experiencing living with roommates for the first time.

1. Communication

I really should say TIMELY communication. Don’t let things build. What often happens is people let things slide until they can’t stand it anymore then when they finally say something it comes out with an edge of frustration or anger. This leaves the other person feeling surprised or defensive.

Let’s look at an example of how to communicate clearly. The situation is that you notice that your roommate used your computer without asking and you are not ok with this. Maybe you would have let them use your computer if they had asked but it feels like a violation for them to just use it.

Step 1: State the facts. In a calm tone say; “I saw you used my computer while I was out.”

Step 2: Express how you are feeling. “When you use my things without asking it makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Step 3: Tell them what you would like in the future. “Next time I would like you to ask before you use any of my stuff. If I’m not here it’s ok to text me.”

Step 4: Indicate what the outcome will be if they do what you ask of them in the future. “I would like to continue to build a trusting relationship with you and this will help!”

2. Be clear and stay on track.

Even if you follow all the steps above it is still possible that your roommate will respond defensively. A common tactic is to change the fight into something else. For example, “well I had to wash your dishes this morning because you left your cereal bowl in the sink. You should wash your dishes more often so I don’t have to do it.”

I know it is sooooo tempting to be derailed by these types of statements but the best course of action is to stay on topic.

Be a broken record: “We can talk about that later. Right now we are talking about you using my computer without permission. In the future I would like you to ask before using any of my things.”

3. Actually listening.

So far we’ve talked about ways you can communicate clearly to a roommate, but what about when someone is trying to tell you something? It’s important to try and listen to what they are asking of you. Of course there are boundaries to this, you should not stand for abusive and aggressive forms of communication. However, if a roommate is approaching you with a concern in a way that is not abusive it is up to you to really take in a hear what they are saying. It does not mean you agree, it means you respect the other person enough to hear them and let them know you are hearing them. You can use similar steps from number 1 to be a better listener.

Let’s switch perspectives and pretend you are the roommate who used the computer without permission.

Step 1: Repeat what you understood. “What I’m hearing you say is that you are not comfortable with me using your stuff without asking. I didn’t think it was a big deal and I’m hearing that it wasn’t ok with you.”

Step 2: Indicate how their communication makes you feel. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m really sorry for that.”

Step 3: State what you will do in the future. “I’ll totally ask before I use any of your stuff in the future.”

4. Using your resources.

Your Residence Assistants (RAs) and Coordinators of Student Development (CSDs) are trained to help with roommate communication and conflict. Students often go to them as a last resort, I’d encourage you to engage your RA before you at the point of wanting to move out. Both RAs and CSDs can help with mediation and can support you to use better communication skills.

During my college roommate conflict reaching out to our RA was really what helped. Having another person support us to navigate communication was key. We were all so sure our side was right it was nearly impossible for us to discuss our differences without breaking into a fight. The RA provided us the support we needed to stay calm and communicate.

5. Knowing when to walk away.

Sometimes there is just a poor match between roommates and all the communication in the world won’t fix that. Understand what your limits are and talk to your RAs or CSDs about your desire to move. Also understand that moving may not solve everything. There might be other issues with the next roommates and moving isn’t always easy with full dormitories. Weigh your options and honor your needs.

In my situation one of my 3 roommates ended up moving out. It was really what was best for the 4 of us. We were all much happier and we were able to remain friendly with one another. Not everyone is meant to live with each other.

Living with other people is often not simple or immediately easy. However, the close relationships that can result from clear communication and understanding can be priceless. Those women I lived with my freshmen year are still friends of mine and it’s been quite some time since we shared that room together.

If you would like additional support navigating school, roommates and being away from home Thrive San Luis Obispo is here to help. We specialize in helping Cal Poly students adjust and thrive. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and see if coaching or therapy is right for you!

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