LTTE: Dear Conflict Resolution

Conflict Res

Dear Conflict Resolution,

How do I get my roommate to pick up her mess?  – Frustrated With Filth


Dear Frustrated,

Ah, the classic messy roommate problem.  One of the reasons this particular conflict is so common is that it centers on fundamental differences in perspective.  Each of us see the world through a kind of filter made up of our past experiences, culture, attitudes, beliefs, values, preferences, etc.  Because no two people are the same, no two people perceive the world in exactly the same way.  One person might be thrilled to be served sushi for dinner, while another might be grossed out.  While you may think your place is a mess, your roommate might disagree with you.

At this point, deciding who is right and who is wrong is a waste of time.  You each have a different mental picture of how your shared living space should look. The two of you could argue until you’re blue in the face about whether or not the place needs cleaning, and never reach an agreement, let alone a solution.  Recognize that your perception is just that – your perception – and not necessarily their reality.  You want things cleaner, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At the same time, there’s also not necessarily anything wrong with how your roommate keeps things.  So, forget about trying to get your roommate to agree with your perception.

Instead, put your energy into finding a compromise that works for the two of you, creating a new, shared idea of what your home should look like.  The best way to do this is with a face-to-face conversation.  No texts.

When talking with her, focus on the actual facts – what you can both objectively see – and avoid exaggeration.  Discuss only things that are specific and literally true.  For example, you might disagree that the kitchen is messy, but you can’t disagree that dirty dishes have been in the sink since the weekend – it’s literally true.

Next, tell her how this affects you.  “I don’t have room to wash my dishes when yours are in there, and I feel stressed when I have to wash your dishes in addition to my own.”  Notice how you’re not judging her or the dishes.  You’re simply telling her what you see, and how it is impacting you.  By only discussing observable facts and your response to those facts, she’ll be less likely to react defensively.

Lastly, ask for what you want. Be specific. Don’t say, “I want you to keep the kitchen cleaner,” because her idea of “cleaner” might not be up to your standards.  Instead, make it clear.  For example: “Can we make an arrangement so that we each wash the dishes at most one day after using them?”  Yeah, it might suck to have to spell things out for her, but it’s better than both of you being frustrated because of unclear communication.

Good luck. If you find you need more help, you and your roommate can schedule a mediation at the Conflict Resolution office and we can help you talk it out.  It’s free.

About: Ask Conflict Resolution is a monthly article by CSU conflict resolution staff.  We’d love to hear your questions about conflicts with roommates, professors, co-workers, etc.  Email your questions to  All names will be kept anonymous.