Dirty dishes piled in the sink. Strangers coming over at odd hours. Loud noises when you’re trying to sleep. Any one of these things can trigger a conflict between roommates, but don’t grab the moving boxes just yet.
Mediation—either with a professional mediator or peer to peer—can be a great way to resolve disputes without having to break your lease, says Michele Kirschbaum, director of programs at the New York Peace Institute, a mediation and restorative justice nonprofit.
“It certainly eases a lot of tension in an apartment or house if you’ve tried to work things out amicably and collaboratively,” Kirschbaum says. “If there was a relationship that’s being fractured by the conflict, mediation can often be used to re-establish or reset that relationship.”
Mediation can also keep conflict at bay until your lease ends.
“[A temporary solution] is not an unusual agreement in a roommate situation,” Kirschbaum says. “Ultimately somebody wants to leave, but they can’t leave right away. So you might work out a temporary living arrangement so that things are at least calm and people can communicate with one another.”
Kirschbaum once worked with two roommates—let’s call them Jack and John—who started living together as strangers. While they initially got along, their relationship turned tense when Jack began bringing his friends over late at night, and John felt relegated to his small, New York City bedroom. The final straw came when Jack’s pet broke something in John’s bedroom, and things got heated, Kirschbaum said.
Both agreed to come to mediation at the Peace Institute, which offers free services to New Yorkers in Brooklyn and Manhattan and for certain housing court cases. The duo were able to express what they wanted—for Jack, a social life, and for John, some peace and quiet—and brainstorm solutions. Jack agreed to pay for his pet’s damages and both came up with a schedule of guest-free evenings until John eventually moved out at the end of his lease.
If you’ve been in John or Jack’s shoes, read on for three strategies on mediating a conflict with your roommate.
[Editor’s note: Have you ever used mediation to fix a roommate relationship? Have you tried and failed? Send us an email with your story here. We respect all requests for anonymity.]
Make sure you’re really listening to your roommate
People often talk at, not to, each other during a conflict, Kirschbaum says. It’s important to practice deep listening when trying to work out a dispute. If you don’t understand your roommate’s problem, you’ll likely have a difficult time finding a solution.
“Take it a little bit slower and listen to what the other person is saying,” Kirschbaum says. “Try and really understand what the concerns are that are being voiced, and what’s really happening for that person.”
Kirschbaum recommends restating what your roommate says back to them, ensuring you’ve understood them correctly and demonstrating that you’re actually listening to their concerns. It’s also important to recognize their emotional state, Kirschbaum says.
“Verify and acknowledge the emotions you’re hearing as well,” Kirschbaum says. “Acknowledging the fact that somebody might be very angry or frustrated is another way to indicate that you’re listening and you’ve heard what they’ve said. And that’s a very key strategy that mediators use to help people feel heard.”
Talk about your concerns in a way your roommate can hear
You should also change how you communicate to make sure your message gets across. If your roommate does something that upsets you, focus on their specific actions and how it impacts you. Don’t attack or criticize them as a person—doing so will only escalate the situation, Kirschbaum says.
Once you start thinking about possible solutions to your problem, make sure you’re both pitching answers. In mediation, a third-party mediator won’t suggest a remedy so that both parties are coming up with a mutually agreeable arrangement, Kirschbaum says.
“It’s really much better in a mediation to have the people themselves try to brainstorm different kinds of solutions,” Kirschbaum says. “Since both parties are really involved in coming up with a decision about how to resolve the dispute, those agreements usually last because it’s something that everyone is in agreement with.”
Keep those communication lines open
If you’ve left a mediation room, or your kitchen table, there’s a chance conflict might come creeping back. Living in a cramped NYC apartment means you’re constantly bumping up against your roommate, and little skirmishes—like making a mess in the kitchen or forgetting when it’s your turn to take out the trash—can help bring back the resentment you’ve worked so hard to erase.
Kirschbaum recommends making a plan to address conflicts if they reappear. You can create regular check-ins with your roommate or make a plan to talk with a mediator in a certain amount of time. Just don’t let it linger.
“When conflicts happen in this space where people are sharing, their communication breaks down. That’s the first thing that happens,” Kirschbaum says. “In mediation, you might also work out, what happens if there’s an issue in the future? How can you best communicate with one another that there’s a problem rather than let it fester and then it might come out in an angry way.”