Tips on having difficult conversations
When problems crop up between you and your roommate(s), an open, honest conversation can probably help all of you identify the conflicts and begin to work on solutions. But having a successful conversation like this is not always easy.
Fortunately, there are several very practical strategies you can use to initiate and hold some of these difficult conversations. These tips can help you work things out with your roommate, and you will find that these suggestions help you resolve conflicts with people in every part of your life - family members, friends, lovers, classmates, professors, workmates, and employers.
Timing is Key.
It is often difficult to hold a successful conversation when one or more parties is caught off-guard or is angry, hurt, or frustrated. Schedule a meeting in advance, or if that is not practical, make sure you are sensitive to everyone's schedule and mood when you initiate a talk. Try to find a time when no one will be rushed and everyone will be as relaxed as possible. For example, it may not be a good idea to sit down with your roommate on the night before an exam, or at the end of a bad day.
Set Ground Rules First.
At a minimum, there's no interrupting, no yelling, no personal attacks and no violence. What other rules are important to each of you? Once everyone understands the ground rules and agrees to keep them, you're ready to begin substantive discussion. After you've begun, if anyone forgets about a ground rule, it's appropriate to offer a gentle reminder.
Use "I" statements, not "you" statements, when making attributions.
Because we're not mind-readers, we often go wrong when we attribute motives to other people. Therefore, stick with statements about your own feelings and observations, rather than statements about the other person's motives or character:
• "I" statement: "I feel really hurt when you promise you'll go to lunch with me and then don't show."
• "You" statement: "You're so heartless and rejecting."
Suspend Judgment so You Can Listen with an Open Mind.
Appreciating another person's perspective, especially when that perspective differs significantly from yours, is essential not just in resolving roommate conflict but also in becoming a successful Princeton student. Rooming and other relationships don't occur in a vacuum -- we all bring our past experiences and assumptions into our new relationships. Therefore, if you feel your blood pressure starting to rise, it may help to remind yourself that some set of life experiences has led your roommate to say what she's saying or do what she's doing, and your own life experiences are contributing to your reactions as well. These moments provide you with the perfect opportunity to practice listening non-judgmentally -- a very useful social skill that will continue to serve you well throughout your life.
Keep Your Eye on your Priorities: Explain, Clarify, Problem-Solve.
Each party should have the opportunity to describe the story from his/her own perspective. Each of you should describe the "problem," how you feel about the issue, how you feel about yourself, how you feel about the other person(s). When one person has the floor, others can ask questions which draw out and clarify the story ("You say you feel kind of left out when Paul has friends over? Do you always feel that way when the friends are over, or just in certain situations?") Once all sides have been presented, you can begin to look for solutions. Explaining, clarifying, and problem-solving are not simply arguing - at all stages, the effort is to better understand one another and produce some solutions.
Focus on Interests, Not Positions.
Most often when we negotiate, we tell the other side what our position is: "I want my roommate to stop using the phone" is a position. Often, a position is a statement of one possible solution to a problem. Interests, on the other hand, are our real needs, hopes, desires, or fears. "I need more quiet time to study" might be the interest that underlies the position "I want my roommate to stop using the phone." A position statement is only one solution, and often not a practical one, whereas an interest statement has the potential to produce a number of possible solutions. For example, perhaps your roommate will agree to take her calls out in the hallway after 10 pm, or to arrange some calls for when she knows you will be out at class. A productive conversation will help everyone discover their underlying interests and generate solutions to meet these interests, rather than simply having everyone repeat their positions. One helpful way of accomplishing this is by asking the question "why." When one party states a position, ask "Why is that important to you? What is it that you care about here?" Eventually, the underlying interests will emerge.
Invent Options for Mutual Gain.
Once the explaining and clarifying stages are complete, the conversation can turn towards the future. Where do we go from here? Think creatively about options and try to avoid making one of these common mistakes: assuming that there are no other options than the ones which are apparent; assuming that the issue at hand necessarily reflects a zero-sum game in which a gain for one player represents a loss of the other; feeling that suggesting an option means agreeing to it - you can always preface a suggestion that comes to mind by saying "this is just an idea, I am not saying I'm ready to agree to this, but what if?"
Reaffirm Your Agreements.
Be sure to make your agreements specific ("Okay, so no music before 8 am, or after 8 pm, if I'm sleeping or studying.") rather than too general ("Okay, so we agree that you won't play music in the room so much.") Once you have reached an agreement, check it with some examples to make sure each of you understands it the same way. "So I can ask you to turn off the music any time, and you might or might not, but if I ask you after 8 pm, you agree to turn it off or use your headphones? Even if you have guests?" "Okay, so you know that I don't want to turn off the music between 4 and 5 when I am doing my mat exercises? If you have to study then you'll go to the library?"