ResEdChat Ep 38: Roommate Agreements & Managing Conflict

Paul returns to the podcast this week to chat with host Dustin Ramsdell about the fundamentals of roommate agreements and the role they serve in managing residential student conflict. Paul also highlights how users of Roompact’s software can leverage its features to be proactive in reducing conflict. Learn from him and examples from other schools about high impact practices.


  • Paul Gordon Brown, Director of the Campus Experience at Roompact

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Dustin Ramsdell:
Our conversation today is focusing on what I believe is probably one of just the foundational, classic traditional components of residence life, the classic roommate agreement. So it’s something that’s been around for a long time and certainly evolved as technology has become more of a tool and a platform to evolve and uplift roommate agreements. So we’re going to be exploring all that context and sort of tips around roommate agreements and Roompact and how all that kind of integrates together. So we’re here again with Paul, another sort of deep dive episode on one of these sort of features here. So we’re going to start though kind of building some context, Paul, as you understand it, and I guess maybe as you define it, how would you give the elevator pitch for what a roommate agreement is?

Paul Brown:
Let me start off by telling you the first time I encountered a roommate agreement, which was when I was a resident, which was many moons ago at this point, and I remember the RA passing out these documents. They were paper at that point and said, “Hey, sit down with your roommate and fill this out and then hand them to me at the end of the floor meeting.” And so we’re reading through this list of questions that are on this document and we’re like, “I don’t know.” Well, how will you handle conflict as roommates together? I don’t know. We’ll talk. So we’ll talk was the answer.
And I never really understood, “Why am I doing this? What kind of answers should I put on it?” And so I think that’s some of the issues that we have with roommate agreements today. Like a roommate agreement is a document that roommates will fill out together to try to talk about various things of how are we going to live together, if we encounter conflict, how are we going to work through that or doing things to kind of preempt conflict that may happen in the future with a roommate or even what are the strategies when we find ourselves in that situation, how do we get out of it? So really it’s a tool to help facilitate conversations between people that live together, both at the beginning and then also a tool that can be used is if conflict happens, how are we going to navigate through this?
Maybe we need to revisit that document and make some agreements together. It’s actually one of… It was one of Roompact’s foundational features. In fact, when Roompact started, as its name actually suggests a Roompact, we were squarely focused on roommate agreements or Roompacts as it were. And that our software of course has evolved to do much more than that. But that was actually the initial seed of the Roompact software is our founder, Matt, had a roommate conflict in college at Marquette University and was able to navigate through that, but it was rough going. And his idea was, “We can make that better.” And that’s actually how Roompact came to be. So it’s baked into kind of our DNA as one of the first things that we tried to look at.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, I love that. I mean obviously a classic kind of founder story scratching your own itch and all of that. But yeah, I mean a story shared by many of whether that is on campus or off campus and all that, you’re living with a person and that comes with its challenges. And the idea of, you said how something like this has been used traditionally is sort of a guide to have the conversations that you should be having about who’s doing the dishes or something, those kind of the chores, the care tasks of maintaining a living space and those sort of things. But it could be referenced back to later on to say what somebody committed to or to adjust it as needed. But I think like you said honestly, that core sort of philosophy, I don’t think it’s changed much. That always is kind of the principle that I think people reference back to as they might use a different tool or platform to facilitate it or whatever.
But to me, what I remember from mostly… my most salient ones are like I probably did when I was a resident, but more so doing it as a resident assistant and hall director and everything is that they very much feel and are presented as a contract, which I think is intimidating and kind of unwieldy for the residents and everything. So I guess just your thought process on that background of how they were used, where it felt very legal and not really contoured to maybe the realities of what a college student, how they would maybe be talking about these things or wanting to use a document like this.

Paul Brown:
In most cases, in a lot of institutions will do these because we’re working with students who’ve never had to live with someone else. Probably always had their own room, which is certainly more common now than I would say it was probably in the past. But handing them an agreement and say, “Hey, fill this out with a roommate,” without giving much guidance as to why does this thing exist or why am I doing this isn’t really helpful. It doesn’t really move the needle. And one of the things that I’ve found where schools kind of, I wouldn’t say go wrong, but aren’t really using the agreement to reach the goals that they want, is that sometimes it becomes a checkbox item. So we’re going to plop this on you, not really totally explain you or walk you through it or do any kind of prep work for that.
And then to the resident, it may feel like this weird contract like, “Why am I doing this? What happens if this is violated,” or not taking it seriously, especially for first year students, “Oh, we’ll never have conflict. If we have conflict, we’ll just talk about it and we’ll be fine,” kind of downplaying the potential for conflict instead of having really authentic conversations. Because also for a lot of students, they’ve never had that kind of conversation or they might not even be aware of themselves living with another person enough to know what does that even look like. So it’s really hard for them to navigate that.
And I think where these can be most effective is when a department says, “Okay, what is our goal with this document? It’s probably to preempt some conflict. If we do have conflict, how can we work through that? We want students to understand themselves and others better and how they might have differences with them, and how do you work through that with someone when there’s differences or how do you compromise in living?” There might be a number of different goals, and if you look back to your goals and look at the agreement as a process, not just a document, you’re going to be much more successful I think, in hitting the goals and outcomes that you want. And I think too often it becomes just an add-on, a check mark on a list. Great. Done. Hand it in. This goes sits on a shelf or gets digitally stored somewhere and then we don’t touch it again until we need to.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Well, yeah, because that’s what I imagine is it could very much become one of those things where like because it’s a transactional thing, it’s going to be used so often across an entire campus. They might be rethinking how it is stored and delivered and filled out and all that, but like you said, maybe not interrogating enough the ideas of the goals, the outcomes and all that, and how is this facilitating, how is this being that process to get these students and residents where we would like for them to be? And so it’s like, “Oh, these are questions or a similar style of questions that we’ve asked for a really long time.” And it’s like, “Yeah, cool. You have a different tool and platform,” and that can’t help. That’s part of the equation is just making that as user-friendly possible and helping staff members more easily search and find a document if they’re needing to have that as a reference or something like that.
So I’m sure a lot of this is obviously part of the inspiration instead of the origin story of this core functionality of Roompact. So how does the Roompact platform fit in here in terms of the facilitating and the managing and all that kind of stuff of the contracts and roommate agreements?

Paul Brown:
Yeah. Well, it’s kind of twofold. So at Roompact, we’re a software company, we produce software. So that is in part one of the things that we do. The other thing that we do is we try to provide robust support, consulting, education, practice help with things. That’s really more kind of what I do on a day-to-day basis. So from a software angle, the software’s going to store those electronically, it’s going to facilitate new residents move in, it’ll generate a new one, it’ll allow them to fill it out. It allows staff to track completions, so you could see what percentages of rooms or suites on this floor have a roommate or suitemate agreement complete. How does that compare to other floors? So the logistics is really what the software is helping with. Keeps it stored. You can always go back to it. Students can actually propose changes, so it’s not something that’s done and finished, but if they need to go back and say, “Well, let’s revise this,” they could go in and propose a change that their roommate could agree to.
And so it really kind of facilitates that process. So that’s really what the software is going to help do. What I then come in and help schools do is thinking about it as part of an overall process. So is there things before the residents start their agreement that you want them to do? We’ve had schools experiment with surveys like, “Understand yourself. Here’s some questions to ask each other,” understand behaviors before they get to that agreement. We’ve had schools do videos that they want students to watch that maybe play out roommate scenarios. Some folks may include some of that content in the preparing for move-in materials. So you’re kind of leading up to the agreement. You’re not just starting with the agreement. There’s things that lead into doing that. And so that’s what I often help schools think through. The other thing I also help think schools think through is, what kinds of questions are we asking here?
Some schools are much more transactional or very explicit about things. How often are we going to clean the room? Or the room should be quiet starting at X time? What time is that? So some will be very behavioral, explicit focused, and some will be more conversations about personality, style, preference or things like if we do encounter conflict, how do we work through that? Or when I get upset about something, how do I approach that? Am I more likely to not be quiet, not talk about it? So there are other schools that will ask questions that are trying to get at, “I want you to understand how the other person operates and thinks and works.” And so we do see those kinds of questions too. And sometimes of course a mix between the two.
But that I think is where I kind of provide the value. So between the software providing the logistics and hopefully my and some of the other content creators I work with, providing more practice and let’s guide you and try to get you to the best outcome. That’s kind of where we kind of fill in that aspect of the ecosystem.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. Because that’s what I wanted to explore is how having an effective roommate agreement helps students to better manage. That’s kind of the core of it and again, the most sort of general outcome that you’d want this process to produce. And I like that like how you sort of framed it, where the particular institution’s culture and how they’re overseeing things where it could be very transactional and explicit, things that are sort of time-based or some sort of frequency and all that or kind of the more personality questions, which I feel like I’d probably want to go more the personality questions. And that’s just how I gut check sort of thing.

Paul Brown:
I think that’s where my gut tells me to go. I think there’s some benefit in very practical things like if you have a student that’s just never lived with someone and doesn’t know where to begin, being very explicit about things actually makes a lot of sense, I think, in that case. But by the same token, you don’t just want it to become this check, check, check, check, check without the conversation around it, which was what that other style of question tries to get at. So I’m with you. My gut’s telling me that would be better, but I also know it would be better if we had a staff member that sat down with every roommate pair and facilitated a conversation. Maybe great outcomes on that, but a lot of staff time investment, which is something you have to balance that out against.
We do have some schools that do that because there’s kind of three different ways I see it play out. We have schools that just say, “Here’s the link to the roommate agreement. Fill it out.” That’s kind of category one. Those folks usually get the lowest completion rates on their agreements. The folks in the middle kind of are average are the, “Do it at a first floor meeting. Hey, bring your laptop to a first floor meeting. We’ll fill it out there, show it to me before you leave,” so a little bit of a check and you’re all doing it at the same time. They tend to get that kind of middle ground.
And then the schools that have the highest completion rates are the ones where an RA sets up an individual meeting with each room and walks through it and has the discussion and probably acts as the recorder, “So let me ask you the question and we’ll discuss it and I’ll write it down for you, and then you can review that and sign it.” They have the highest completion rates, but obviously on this sliding scale, there’s also a staff time investment that also changes with that. So yeah, I like you kind of have that… I think that’s really probably the best way to do it if you really want to hit all your outcomes. Is it reasonable from a staff time and administrative perspective? Could come up on different places on that depending on your institution. But that’s the Cadillac I think of the approach to this, right?

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, being mindful of efficiency is certainly important in trying to navigate that. And I think there’s other aspects in terms of helping to manage conflict where I think that it’s really cool to hear, I guess just different manifestations of especially just the idea of it being a very easily adaptable sort of living document, that idea of proposing changes and agreements and all that. Because it might be very hard for anybody to really anticipate several months from now we’ve been living together and sort of what we need to give each other and those sort of things. And then I’m even imagining, I’m curious in your thoughts on this and just sort of helping students that better manage conflicts. So say like an institution’s at category one, they want to be efficient, so they have a really effective roommate agreement. They’re using a platform to do it. So they send it out and they’re able to obviously oversee the whole operations of doing that really effectively, but a very low completion.
But then residents have an issue. And then that could be like, “Okay, we’re all going to have a meeting and we’re going to do it now,” because it’s kind of salient of, “We are encountering an issue. We need to get to a place where we can resolve that issue and manage that conflict. Let us use this as a tool to help in that process,” kind of thing. How do you see that sort of scenario playing out? I’d imagine that that is something even for a school that has high completion, they would have obviously that sliver of people that haven’t even done it, they encountered issues so that it’s still sort of a tool that you could pull out.

Paul Brown:
They haven’t done it or they didn’t take it seriously. That was me when I was in college. I don’t know what this document is. I don’t know that we took it particularly seriously. Might even draw on it or do other things. But I probably should say there’s actually a fourth category of schools. So I mentioned the three, but I think there’s actually a fourth, which is some schools will do it as needed, meaning they don’t lead with it, but if it comes up, then they will have someone fill it out. That’s probably a fourth case. It’s probably the least common one that I see. But I think all of them will pull that back out on an as needed basis and use that then as the tool. So within Roompact, residents can propose changes throughout the year, but the staff member has the ability to reset the agreement, which means clear the whole thing out.
And if you’re in a situation where that conflict occurs, maybe it’s about one little thing, you might not need to clear it out, but I think there’s certain circumstances where if you look through those answers and said, “You didn’t take this seriously, we’re just going to clear this out and we’re going to do this as a guided conversation together,” that I think is pretty common. I think what schools attempt to do, though, of course, with the agreement is doing that takes a lot of time, and it can be especially more time-consuming when you reach the conflict point and you’re trying to deescalate it and get them talking like that is not usually a clean, neat one hour process, let’s put this with a nice bow on top of it. So that just can eat staff time. And also, it’s not usually particularly fun for a staff member to have to go through inflamed tensions and things like that.
So there is the tool, but also you want to keep it from getting to that point, both for the students themselves, but also from… if I’m going to take up hours of my day on one roommate conflict as a professional hall director, what could I have been using with those hours focused on something else? So agreements can be helpful in pulling them back out or figuring out ways to try to empower residents. I don’t know that a lot of schools will say, “Hey, we’re going to complete this agreement here at the beginning of the year,” and then late October, mid-late October, you come back and say, “Hey, let’s review this again now that time has passed. Let’s see what you wrote.”
And that might actually be a good strategy to try to bring it back in front of students thinking of it as a living document, not something that is complete and then it’s done and you forget about it or it’s set in stone, or as you I’m sure know, it’s a constant renegotiation when you live with someone as they change and they evolve. And certainly in college, a lot of that’s happening a lot more quickly than it is. At my current age, my habits are a little more set than they probably were then. I wasn’t exploring as much, but for those students, I was a night person. Now I’m a morning person. I said I’d never touch alcohol and now I touch it too much. I mean, all sorts of habits change as people kind of explore themselves, and college is one of the main places where people do that.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And yeah, I mean, I think that’s a big takeaway for me and I think a really appropriate evolution where that never was on my radar as an RA, as a hall director and my first couple of years of a professional of really looking at those agreements as living documents and how do we leverage them to maximize that potential. So that’s really just refreshing because I think yeah, there’s such an opportunity to almost just really embrace that and lead with it, that idea of if you’re sort of reaching out on a frequent basis to the students, to the residents directly or to your team just being like, “Hey, just let’s keep that top of mind that like yeah, it is a tool that can be used a lot more actively than maybe it was originally perceived or thought of.”
And yeah, there’s such a great opportunity in empowering residents to take ownership of because I think that’s something else where there is maybe that norm where it’s like, “Okay, residents, you fill this out and you give it to us,” and it’s like you have to try to remember maybe and maybe you get a copy at best, but there’s sometimes a firewall, because I guess there’s a philosophy of trying to prevent that sort of iteration because it’s like, “Well, no, you signed this contract. You can’t just edit the terms on a whim.” But it’s like, yeah, like I said, it’s a developmental time for students. They need to be able to just have something like that that can sort of honor and reflect their differing needs. Because I’m even just thinking of practical stuff where it’s like, yeah, I mean, my job, I changed my job and now I work different times a day, so I need to sleep in or not… different. Yeah, there’s just things like that that students are going to be navigating throughout a whole academic year.

Paul Brown:
Well, and you spoke with Jake Garner in an earlier episode about restorative practices, and I’ll give you the link so you can include it in the show notes, but Jake did a great article on using restorative practices in your roommate agreement process. And I think when it comes to roommate agreements, you need to think about it as a process. It’s a mindset. One of the things that Jake talks about restorative practices is it’s not just a do these set of things, it’s an approach. It’s the way you think about things. And I think that’s what gets at the root of how do we make our agreements more effective? It’s not really the questions. I mean, questions are probably a part of it, but I think a smaller part of it than how are we approaching this process and how we unveil it to students is probably more important than the actual questions that you ask.

Dustin Ramsdell:
There’s a formula here where you don’t want to neglect one part of it for another, just be so focused on the questions and that verbiage. It’s like it is important. Just like any survey or anything that you do, you want to ask a good questions that aren’t sort of leading anyone in any direction or confusing or something, but… Yeah, so all really good takeaways here, and we’ll wrap up with hopefully maybe a couple of more for folks, if there’s any other sort of pro tips, guidance, things to consider with this process. Again, it’s a complex and dynamic one from how you’re facilitating the completion of them, managing them, potentially iterating on them. Just any other thoughts that you want to share as we wrap up this episode?

Paul Brown:
Yeah. A couple of things that I also get put out as resource for folks. So we did talk about questions, which I said are also important, how are you going to structure them. Now that we’ve worked with so many schools for so many years, we have this big bank of questions, and in fact, we’ve started to put them into a big question bank. So if schools are wanting to look at, “What kinds of questions should we ask in these agreements, what should they look like,” we actually have a resource page that this all sorts of other questions people use that you can then take and modify.
And as someone who put most of that together, it’s really interesting to see the different ways that schools will frame them. And you can tell from the way that they’re asking the questions. And so I think there’s a lot of value in looking at those questions to get a sense at not just, “I want to take this question,” but look at how they crafted it, look at the way they worded it, what are the things that this is revealing to me about what’s important to them? And so I think it can start in part with something like that.
The other thing is, how do we track conflict? So roommate agreements is part of it, but it’s intimately tied probably to roommate conflict. And we do have a guide for folks that use our software that gives you a, “Here’s how you could develop a process so you can track those conflicts, you can see what type they are. You can figure out how they’re being resolved or not resolved,” which will give you data and insight into how do we make this better in the future? Because I don’t think institutions have done a good job of, “Well, how many roommate conflicts do we actually have? How many of them were we able to resolve through mediation? How many of them were not? How many were, we’re just going to move you and that is the solution?”
There are ways to track that in a way that’s not burdensome from staff that will give you good assessment data. And I don’t think we see people talk about that as much. I think sometimes when we… at least I’ll speak from my own experience, we have a lot of roommate conflict was my anecdotal evidence and experience that we have a lot of roommate conflict. It wasn’t necessarily based in any kind of hard data or even what kind like, “Oh, that’s natural,” or, “Oh, this is not something we should pay attention to this. There’s something else we could do to preempt this kind of conflict,” because certain things that are causing it or our lack of addressing it is making it more likely to occur. So I think that’s another tip that a lot of institutions I don’t think have gone far down that road is, “How do we track that conflict? What’s going on in it? What do we really know about it beyond our lived experience and our anecdotal evidence?” It’s another avenue.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. Well, I like that idea too is just kind of a parting thing where you’re using a good platform to do all this work, and there’s likely going to be, especially if you’re just fully embracing it, integrating into your workflows and everything, just a rich kind of warehouse of data and obviously you sort of turn on the spigot and sort of pour that out and then it’s like it’s up to you to do it that what you will, because I was even thinking, yeah, maybe tracking on average per student how many proposed changes were made to roommate agreements.
And it’s like somebody could say, “Yeah, we want to minimize that,” and it’s like, “Maybe.” I mean, you could also have a takeaway where it’s like this shows its residents are engaged in the process. They’re trying to actively make this into a document that is relevant and useful. So that could be where it’s zero is kind of concerning. Maybe a ridiculous number is also concerning, but there’s kind of a thread where a certain number actually is like that’s just right, that’s perfect to show that students are engaged in utilizing this living document. Yeah, and then just exactly what you said of just understanding the number of conflicts, the type of conflicts and all that, where again, zero conflicts it’s like, I don’t think that’s true. We’re just not hearing about it or something.

Paul Brown:
We’re just not seeing that, people suffering in silence or things like that. That would be concerning if you had none.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. So it’s like that’s a red flag or the red flag of like, “Oh my gosh. It’s like we have three times as many conflicts as we even have residents in this building. That’s what’s even happening here. We’ve had multiple ones every single day or something,” looking at it as a per resident basis or per room basis or however a length of time and all this sort of like… you can shape the numbers in whatever way they’re relevant. But just trying to go through that exercise and like you said, do it in a way that isn’t going to be burdensome or anything. I think, yeah, oftentimes it’s there for the taking and for interpreting, but those are going to be things that can help drive your strategy to get to a place where you can make decisions about how are we facilitating, utilizing roommate agreements and all those sort of things.

Paul Brown:
Well, and also too, I mean, it goes beyond, we focus on the agreement process when they live in our halls, but there are companies that do things like roommate matching. How can we try to pair up people that are more likely to be, I don’t know, compatible? Which isn’t always the goal that residence life goes for. You want to expose people to different people, but you probably also want some compatibility in terms of lifestyle and things like that that might make that roommate relationship easier. And that’s just a whole nother topic and body of research. And there are companies that engage in the roommate matching. That’s not what we do, but we’re kind of, “All right, once they’re together and they live in the halls, you’re with Roompact,” but there are experiments around that too that different institutions have tried.

Dustin Ramsdell:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s an interesting kind of philosophical choice too, because that would obviously change the dynamic of utilizing a roommate agreement of how much choices student have in the matter, or yeah, how are they sort of try to be paired together.

Paul Brown:
We’ll just have AI do roommate matching in the future. I’m sure there’ll be some beautiful supercomputer model and you just pour everyone in there and you give all your criteria and it’ll be like the AI will say, “Here’s your matches,” right?

Dustin Ramsdell:
Mm-hmm. What could go wrong? What could go wrong? Well, on that note, we’ll end it because I think it’s a conversation for another day thinking all about that stuff. But just thank you so much for hanging out and sharing your expertise as always. And like you said, we’ll have some great resources on this topic for folks to check out in the show notes. So just thanks again for hanging out, Paul.

Paul Brown:
Yeah, thanks Dustin.

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Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast provides a platform to highlight amazing professionals and important topics in residence life and college student housing. If you have a topic idea for an episode, let us know!

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