My two sons share a four bedroom house with three other students at college. The three other students initially wanted other living accommodations for next year, while my sons wanted to stay. So my boys found two other students to share the house, and nobody wants to share a room. One of the original three roommates did not find other accommodations, and now wants to stay in the house next year. My oldest son is concerned about this crucial conversation—how to tell this student that his spot has been taken. How should he handle this delicate situation?
Dear Concerned Parent,
There are a number of issues to address in this situation. I’d like to start by isolating a couple of issues and offer some advice.
The first bit of counsel may be for future interactions. I’d like to address how to clarify things up front so these issues don’t get so confusing and ugly. After your sons and the other students talked and made plans—after they engaged in dialogue and got to an agreement—they needed to “Move to Action.” Specifically, they needed to document who would do what by when. The commitments and next steps would have been clear to both groups. Notice the word document. When issues are complicated, of long duration, or could be interpreted differently by different people (e.g., issues that involve money, contracts, leases, etc.), documenting is a very good idea. Why? Because memory is unsafe. A dull pencil, the old adage goes, is better than a sharp mind.
If the previous agreement is clear, the issue is to get agreement around the new circumstances—which means holding a crucial conversation.
Begin this conversation by making it safe. One of the best ways to do this is to start the discussion with your observations. Describe the Gap clearly, without adding judgments. It might sound something like this: “Last month we all agreed that the three of you would move out and that the two of us would find new roommates. We also decided that none of us wanted to share a room. We have found the new roommates. Now we hear that you want to stay in the house. That would mean sharing rooms. That doesn’t match up with the plans that were made.”
Continue to make it safe by clarifying your intent and making sure the other person understands what you’re trying to say, “I don’t want to come across as not understanding the challenge of finding a new place; I just want to share how I see the agreement and make sure you understand our point of view. Do you see where I’m coming from?”
I think it’s probably a given that if the ex-roommate understands what had been agreed to, then the issue will become, “Yeah, but I tried and now things are different. Come on, give me a break here. We’re friends.” Now a new issue has been born, and finding a solution comes down to being creative with the options. Your sons need to decide what they want ultimately and then communicate that using their best crucial conversations skills. They could give in. They could say that he could stay two weeks while everyone helps him look for a new place. Or they could mention that the relationship is important but should not be tied to a new rooming agreement and that he can’t stay.
Regardless of how they decide to proceed, all this is new data for a new dialogue and safety is still an issue. Often when people see that you are trying to understand their new purpose and help them, and that you are being respectful, options emerge and relationships stay strong. There are no guarantees, but it is certainly the place to start.