Published: April 9, 2020

holding handsMany of us have had to make significant changes to our everyday lives in the face of uncertainty and adversity, including our students. Social distancing dictates that we spend the bulk of our time indoors with the same people day in and day out. The combination of these can lead to increased stress, anxiety and ultimately, conflict. Here are some tips and strategies to help your student navigate disagreements at home or with their roommates.

Be proactive

In times of stress and uncertainty when we may be experiencing a wide range of emotions, disagreements and conflict can be more likely to occur. Encourage your student to be proactive and address concerns sooner rather than later to manage tough situations. For instance, if your student is feeling frustrated with their roommate about their dishes in the sink, urge them to start a conversation about it early on.

It can also be helpful for a student to sit down with who they are living with, whether it’s with you as a family member, their significant other or their roommates to create a living agreement that outlines how everyone would like to live together. Brainstorming a list together gives everyone a say in the process. Evidence shows that people are more likely to adhere to guidelines when they help create them. Have your student write down every suggestion that comes up before working to fine-tune the list. If they need help getting started, they should consider questions like:

  • What guidelines do we want to put in place for shared areas? (e.g. noise levels, quiet hours, etc.)
  • How can each of us create alone time when needed?
  • What do we each need to feel respected?
  • What does support look like for each of us?
  • What do we need to feel safe?
  • How will we know when each of us needs space/company?

Practice effective communication

Good communication starts with listening. Encourage your student to approach disagreements with a sense of curiosity and utilize active listening skills. This will help them to get past surface-level disagreements and explore the underlying issues. Too often, we focus on how we will respond rather than understanding the other person. Part of active listening is letting the other person finish what they have to say before jumping in or responding. Active listening also involves clarifying that we understand their perspective by asking open ended questions like:

  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What is important to you about that?

When it is time for your student to share their perspective, remind them to do so without assigning blame. Instead, encourage them to use “I” statements to illustrate the way they feel, the times when they feel it and the reasons they feel that way. Students can download a free PDF for examples of active listening and “I” statements from Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (SCCR).

Understand your impact

It’s important for us to understand that our intentions may not always align with the impact they have on other people. In many situations, a half-hearted apology can do more harm than good. If your student has been the source of conflict in their living situation, it’s important that an apology includes recognition of responsibility for the harm caused and the actions that will be taken in the future to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

Additionally, it’s a good idea to ask the other person if there is anything that can be done to make things right. For example, a good apology might sound something like, “I’m sorry for not cleaning up after myself. I know that was disrespectful to you. In the future, I’ll be sure to clean up after myself before moving on to other activities. Is there something I can do now to fix this situation?” Remind your student to avoid using this time to try to explain themselves, and refrain from using statements like, “I’m sorry I made you angry, but…” Instead, encourage them to empathize with the other person to help resolve the conflict.

Know when it’s time for a break

It’s important to understand and recognize things that bother us. Knowing and recognizing things that make us feel upset or angry, can help us take a step back before doing or saying something we don’t mean. Next time your student is in a tough situation, remind them to pay attention to the ways their body responds. For instance, does your student notice their fist or jaw clenching? Do they feel a tightness in their stomach or chest when situations get tense? If so, it may be a good idea for them to cool down and take a few deep breaths before starting or continuing the conversation.

If they find themselves in the middle of a disagreement, it’s still okay to take a break. Let your student know that they can inform the other person that they want to have the conversation, but they don’t feel they’re in the right place to have it now. This may sound something like, “I want to have this conversation, but I’m not in the best state of mind right now. I would like to cool down to avoid saying something I don’t mean. Can we talk about this in 20 minutes?” This signals to the other person that the conflict is important to your student, but they also want to handle it effectively.

Reach out for support

If your student is struggling to manage conflict with their roommates, partner, family or other household members, there are resources to help. Student Conflict and Conduct Resolution (SCCR) offers free services to help undergrad and graduate students navigate conflict. Through their programs (currently available virtually), SCCR can help students by:

  • Facilitating group agreements
  • Providing conflict coaching for individuals and small groups that focus on developing a deeper understanding of how we approach conflict and practicing skills for effective conflict management
  •  Leading virtual group trainings for effective conflict management
  • Facilitating group dialogues that focus on developing community in close quarters, managing conflict and practicing holistic ways of co-existing
  • Mediating conflict between two or more parties
  • Providing additional conflict management advice and support

Reach out to Conflict Resolution to schedule an appointment or get support by calling 303-492-0192 or emailing conflictresolution@colorado.edu.