Parents & Families

October 31, 2013

Conflict resolution tips for students

Amy Collins, licensed psychologist at the UW Counseling Center and liaison to Residential Life, consults with and trains professional Residential Life staff and Resident Advisers on ways to approach psychological and interpersonal issues that affect their residents. She provides some valuable insight on conflict resolution that you may want to share with your student.

In college, many students will experience some form of conflict with roommates. Bringing up difficult topics of conversation is not easy to do, but discussing concerns assertively is an important skill for students to develop. Speaking up in an honest and respectful way, and listening openly to the other person’s perspective can turn a potential conflict into a productive conversation. If your student is facing this type of challenge, there are several recommendations you can make to help guide them through it.

Sometimes it helps to start a tough conversation by focusing on a shared goal, or even the smallest piece of common ground, such as “we both want to feel comfortable living here.” When students speak for themselves and communicate personal feelings (“I feel . . .” rather than “you always. . . ”), this generally leads to less defensiveness from the other person. Next, it can be helpful to ask for something directly (“please let me know next time you are running more than ten minutes late,” for example), and then listen to what the other person has to say.

It may also be beneficial to remind your student that it’s impossible to predict or control another person’s response. If your student has encountered an individual who seems difficult to interact with or relate to, try suggesting they build empathy by remembering a time when they had the same basic emotion as the other person. Having empathy does not require agreeing with the other person; it just means understanding someone a bit better and gaining a new perspective on how to resolve conflict with that person. Taking a break so both people can calm down and get some space is also a good strategy.

One common trap that leads to conflict escalation is bringing past disputes or other minimally relevant issues into a current confrontation. This can take a simple “I’m frustrated that you didn’t wash your dishes” conversation all the way to a hostile and hurtful screaming match. To avoid this, students can learn to stay focused on the current concern; if necessary, they can revisit past or peripheral issues in a separate conversation. Willingness to take responsibility for one’s role in an issue and to apologize when appropriate can also go a long way toward resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships!

Encourage your student to experiment with these techniques as a way to build confidence in addressing difficult situations. At the same time, conflicts sometimes exceed students’ ability to resolve them for various reasons. You can assure your student that it is completely normal and appropriate to use the variety of resources available at the UW. Resident Advisers (RAs) and Resident Directors (RDs) are a great starting point for students living on campus. Additionally, all students are welcome to visit the Counseling Center, Health and Wellness , Hall Health and any other office on campus. We also encourage them to talk with professors, advisors and the many other supportive staff and student leaders at the UW!