Conflict · Coping skills & self-soothing · Uncategorized

Difficult roommate: how to solve conflict without killing someone

new doc 2017-12-15 11.54.22_5It would be nice if we had a magic wand that calmed people down and solved conflict with a flurry of the stick, but things aren’t so easy.  Consider the following situation.

You ask your new roommate to remove her belongings from your shelf in the bathroom.  You don’t mean anything bad by it.  She’s a great roommate, and things have been going pretty good.  But she gets upset and responds, “You’re always trying to take control of everything.  I can’t even wash my clothes without your telling me to leave your detergent alone. Maybe you should start looking for a new place to live!”

How do you respond?  Shoot back nasty words, apologize profusely, or walk off in a huff?  Or do you pull out the Five Steps to Conflict Resolution Method and, presto-magic, calm things down like an expert problem-solver?

Below you’ll find tips for dealing with tough situations, a list of stuff NOT to do, and the infamous Five Steps to Conflict Resolution Method.


Tips for Dealing with Difficult Situations

Before saying what’s on your mind, think conflict resolution.  Here are some tips at dealing with challenging scenarios. 

If possible, catch the conflict at its early stages. The earlier you put a wrench in the cycle, the easier it is to negotiate with the other party.  Negative emotions are less extreme.  Opinions are less entrenched.  The second you feel conflict brewing, think conflict resolution.

When faced with conflict, keep your cool. Be polite, respectful, and constructive,  keep your voice calm and even, and use friendly language.  Try to stay in control of your own emotions.  Don’t yell or get offensive.  Two angry persons only complicate the situation.

Listen to what the other person has to say. What’s really going on?  As you listen, gather more information about the situation. Try to understand the conflict from the other person’s point of view.  Ask honest, respectful questions, and let them know you’re trying to understand the problem as they see it.  Be aware of and respectful of differences, even if the other person is nasty to you.

Be assertive. When you’re ready to speak, express your needs in an honest, direct way that respects the feelings and opinions of other people. Be flexible but don’t back down on what’s important to you.

Pick your battles. Conflict can be all-encompassing and draining, so you’ve got to decide whether the fight is worth your energy and time.  If the battle is life or death, keep going.  If it’s over a pack of chewing gum, consider folding and moving on.  Know when to let something go.

Be willing to forgive. Conflict resolution involves letting go of the urge to punish. Keep safe boundaries, if needed, but consider letting the resentment go.  Resentment only depletes us of energy and never compensates for our losses.  Learn to forgive and let go.


Unhealthy Ways to Handle Conflict:

Conflict triggers strong emotions, hurt, disapproval, and harmful behaviors.  Handled in an unhealthy manner, it creates havoc between parties, leaving a trail of resentment and irreparable rifts.  But handled in a healthy way, conflict can help us better understand one another, build trust, and strengthen relationships.

Responses that make conflict worse:

  • Explosive, belligerent, or violent reactions
  • Withdrawal of support or love, which causes shame, rejection, and isolation
  • Refusing to recognize matters of great importance to other people
  • Expecting a negative outcome
  • Avoiding conflict altogether
  • Being manipulative and playing mind games
  • Inability to forgive, resentful reactions
  • Lack of flexibility when it comes to compromise
  • Wanting to punish the other party

Five Steps for Dealing with Conflict.

It’s time for the nitty gritty.

There are different ways to deal with conflict, including fighting, collaboration/negotiation, and ignoring/moving on.  If the conflict is life or death and nothing seems to work, fighting for what’s right may be the only way to go.  If the dilemma is a minor one and not easy to solve, or not worth the effort, ignoring or forgetting the problem might be a better approach.  Sometimes it’s okay to accept one’s losses and move on.

But if you want to solve the problem, the most potent tool in your arsenal is collaboration.  Collaboration involves solving difficult situations in a pro-active, respectful way that benefits both parties as much as possible. Here are the five steps.

new doc 2017-12-15 07.45.34_4Step 1. State the problem respectfully.  Express interest in making things right.  Look for mutual purpose.  First, describe the problem from the other person’s point of view too.  Even if you don’t agree with them, empathize with their needs and express  understanding.  If you appreciate or love the other person, here’s the time to say it. Second, state your perspective.  Make sure to state your needs clearly.  Do so respectfully and diplomatically.  Third, summarize the issue using both points of view.  Respond to their concerns while defending your own.  Don’t forget to check in with the other person to see if there are any further misunderstandings.

Back to the roommate scenario: you learn your roommate is upset because of several notes you left around the apartment, one asking her not to use your laundry detergent.  She explains that her abusive ex-boyfriend used to leave controlling notes all over the place.  Your notes reminded her of him.  This has caused her significant angst.

Knowing this, what’s a possible response?

My response was: “I care about you as a roommate and want to make this work between us.  Now I see that my notes really bothered you, and I can understand why.  They remind you of your crazy ex-boyfriend.  Am I right?  On my side, the notes weren’t meant to be offensive.  That’s just how my former roommate and I used to communicate, but I’m sure you and I can come up with a different system.  The thing is I work long hours and never see you to tell you in person, and I hate to bother you on your cell phone.”

Step 2. Come up with as many solutions to the problem as you can.  Brain-storm ideas.  Try to think outside the box.  Ideally solutions include options that are agreeable to all, but compromise might require sacrifice on both sides.

When it comes to the situation with your upset roommate, what solutions can you think of?  Here were my ideas:

  • Instead of leaving notes in different places, leave a message board on the fridge
  • Call to talk on the cell phone, no matter how small the issue
  • Wait to communicate about problems face-to-face, even if it takes a few days before your roommate and you see one another
  • Meet once a week to go over things
  • Convince your roommate that notes are okay

Step 3.  Choose the best solution.  Take a pick.  Try to choose the solution together.  If the other person isn’t interested in looking for an answer, go for a realistic intervention that meets both parties’ needs as much as possible.  Be honorable, even if the other person isn’t.  Choosing a fair solution leaves you knowing you did the right thing and can sometimes bring the other person over to your side.

Which option did you choose?  In this example, your roommate prefers to meet once a week to touch bases.   For you this isn’t ideal, as you have little free time, but it’s doable.  If there’s a pressing matter, she prefers you call her.  You accept the solutions. 

new doc 2017-12-15 11.54.22_2
Step 4. Set up a plan to make the solution work
.  Once you’ve chosen a solution, put it into action.  When will it start?  Where will it happen?  Who will do what?  If needed, break the plan down into steps.  If the other person isn’t involved, let them know you’re working on a solution.  Again, to make future conflict less likely and possibly bring the other person over to your side, make sure the plan is fair to both parties.

Your roommate suggests you meet on Tuesday nights after work, before your guitar lessons.  You agree to her choice.

Step 5. Make it happen.  Go through with your plan.  If the other person isn’t interested in participating, consider checking in with them to see how they’re doing on their end.  Again, this can help reduce future conflicts.

Next Tuesday you meet with your roommate.  She brings cookies and tries to make amends.  The meeting is a success.


Conflict resolution isn’t always successful.  If the other person refuses to interact with you, or if every interaction is toxic, do your best to keep appropriate boundaries (be respectful but not let the other person take advantage of you) and try to solve the problem as honorably as you can.  If this involves ending the relationship or moving out, do so.

That’s conflict resolution in a nutshell.  Now go forth and stamp out unnecessary conflict!


Want to know more about solving difficult situations?  Consider reading How to deal with difficult people.

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