Help me remain calm when talking to annoying flatmate!
June 3, 2012 8:54 PM   Subscribe

Flatmate filter: I'm planning on having a calm discussion with one of my flatmates this weekend about some issues I know she has about the house, but that haven't been discussed in the open. I would like tips on remaining calm and collected in the moment.

I have two flatmates, one is an absolute dream and I love her, we get on famously. The other is much more...particular, shall we say, and Good Flattie and I both feel the same way about Weird Flatmate.

WF, just to summarise, is prone to random bad moods, huffiness, is judgey about house stuff yet doesn't contribute and when engaging in small talk with her, tends to unload about her stressful life, job, in a complaining and negative way that gives you no room to either counsel her in a practical or positive way. It's the type of unloading that just passes stress onto others rather than neutralises it. She is the type of person who gets put out if she feels she hasn't got to use as much of the salt and pepper as the rest of us. The resulting household is one that is anxious and egg-shelly when she is around, and glorious when she is not, but we are at the point where the shadow of her bad vibe lingers.

WF feels more comfortable with GF than me, and unloaded on GF about some issues she had with me, regarding various house things and living approaches that I will ultimately never agree with her on. Mostly importantly she thinks I don't like her, that we don't have to be best friends but it would be nice if I was civil. There's other stuff as well that I won't go into but it's all along the same times.

To be clear, I AM TOTALLY CIVIL, nice and cheerful even. But she is perceptive in that I definitely have been withdrawing from dealing with her day to day except for brief small talk, mostly because I find the unloading and the negative thoughts stressful and time consuming. Not to diminish her experience, but we all have stress and hard times and need to protect ourselves from any more of it. GF has a more giving heart and gives WF more time, but also feels the fatigue of it.

I intend on having a gentle discussion about this to clear the air, and also because I find it difficult to live in a house where someone gets huffy at me and GF for no reason other than they are having a bad day, or have drunk too much, or has low blood sugar.

I feel fortified that what I have to say is valid, but I'm worried that when I talk to her I will either:

1. Lose it and yell at her
2. Forget all the good points I wanted to bring up
3. Clam up
4. Apologise

She just rang me about nothing and I didn't answer because I suddenly freaked out and got super anxious. I really want to be calm and collected, and not have a shaky voice.

I'm not a fan of confrontation but I have done it in the past where I've felt certain and strong and well informed and I while I feel the same in this situation, I think maybe I'm mostly worried about (1), because I really, really don't like WF's vibe and it makes me aggravated.

Ideally, we'd ask her to leave, but GF just wants everyone to get along and I'll do it for her sake and y'know, it could be worse.

So how can I remain calm and not give her any fodder to complain for feel like a victim?
posted by mooza to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It might actually help to put yourself in her shoes- if she is so enervated, stressed out, and feeling marginalized, you losing your temper and yelling will certainly not help the situation.

I'm not "taking her side", or blaming you for anything- everything you wrote sounds like you're definitely in the right, and I completely sympathize. I wouldn't want to be in that situation, or live with someone like that, either.

However, this is about helping you deal with the situation, and answering your question. Seeing things from her perspective, and how much she must be suffering (whether it's warranted or not), may help you be calmer, and realize that she's just a person who clearly is not coping very well.

It may also help you to remember that, no matter who's to blame for what, it's never nice to feel ganged up upon, as it often happens in these situations. Again, putting yourself in her shoes may allow you to soften up a bit, and take a more relaxed attitude.

Good luck- hope it goes well.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:49 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

What exactly are you hoping to accomplish? It kind of sounds like you just want to lay out a list of her faults without losing your cool, and you hope that if you are able to do that then she will see how wrong she has been and decide to make a change for the better. It doesn't sound like you really want to understand where she is coming from, or listen to what she has to say. You'd prefer to show her the door. That is totally valid. She does sound like a toxic flatmate, and not everybody will be able to get along. But if you are going to give it a shot, for the good flatmate's sake, then maybe you should lean on good flatmate to be the mediator in the discussion instead of taking the lead to lay out weird flatmate's problems yourself. Then make an honest effort to listen to her and compromise on a solution. In all honesty, it kind of sounds like you might be the one who has been avoiding dealing with the problems directly, and letting them build up. I get that; I'm the same way. People should just be considerate of others, and aware of how their actions affect the people around them. I hate it when someone else's failings in that regard become problematic in my daily life. That's why I'm glad I don't have to deal with roommates anymore.

Realistically, a approach of, "here's what's wrong with you, weird flatmate" is not going to accomplish anything. It is going to make her defensive and angry, and I think that's probably why you're feeling so anxious about it. Something more along the lines of, "Hey flattie, we obviously have a problem here. Can we see what we can do to work together to fix it? Here's how it looks to me, how does it look to you?" at least has a chance of being productive. But it may just end up that the two of you are not suitable flatmates. If you've already decided that that's the case, then just write down a list of everything you want to say, and read it to her. Make a note to yourself to stay focused and unemotional. Then be prepared to walk away when you are done, and hope for the best.

Good luck. And good on you for dealing with it directly. That's not always easy to do. Just be clear and honest with yourself about what you hope to accomplish. That makes it a whole lot easier to stay on track.
posted by Balonious Assault at 10:09 PM on June 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

Just to respond to a couple of points - I'm bringing it up in conversation with her because GF has advised/asked me to after copping an earful about it over the weekend and GF was also speaking from experience after having a similar run in with WF during a time I was away from home. It's also because WF snapped at me last night over something random and I'm not ok with living in a dynamic where people slam doors. I've known what her issues are as she is not good at hiding them but now that she's had a convo with GF, I want her to be able to lay it out to me in person as well so we can come to a compromise. And yes, I want to be able to respond to her in person - so long as I don't inadvertently make it a tit for tat argument, that's what I'm afraid of! I'm not as zen as GF, I wish I was.

Balonius you're right in that I need to separate that feeling in me that just wants to tell her she's a crap flatmate and the more important aim of clearing the air - which is definitely what I want. I think you're right that the former being present in my mind is what's making me anxious.
posted by mooza at 10:53 PM on June 3, 2012

If she really does cause such a negative mood with door slamming and similar nonsense, you are wasting your time trying to work things out.

I have absolutely no idea why you're not using this conversation to ask her to leave. If she's not on the lease and you are, politely but firmly give her a month to vacate the premises and be done with it.
posted by Spacelegoman at 11:24 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you need to get over trying to be calm, and thinking that you can control how she's going to take the conversation. You could be calmness personified, and if she wants to feel like a victim, she is going to.

Rather than focusing on being calm, or what I think you mean is poised, focus on being clear. Let your voice waiver. Let frustration creep into your voice if you're frustrated. The point is these are natural reactions, and there is no point waiting energy trying to suppress them. Instead, Be specific about what change you want to see in her behaviour. You can just say that you all want to treat each other with respect, and that the following actions on her part don't meet that standard. So, you're asking her to knock off the door slamming, and whatever else she's doing.

As for the woe is me drama, you can't so much ask her to stop complaining as you can refuse to listen to it. Seriously. Stop her. Every time. She starts up with how horrible x is, and you cut off the monologue with honesty. Just say that you're sorry she's upset but you can't listen to it, because it's bringing you down. Change the topic. The point is to allow natural consequences for actions. Suck the joy out of a room, and people are going to want to stop spending time with you. Slam doors, and people are going to tell you to knock that shit off. Escalate, and people are going to ask you to leave. Part of what is wacky about all of this is that you all sound like you are trying to avoid letting lthings unfold as they should.

Be ridiculously upset if that is what you are. Call her out on her behaviours and be clear about what you will and won't tolerate, as well as clear about what the consequences are if she doesn't start treating her roommates with respect. Figure that out before you talk with her. Because personally, I wouldn't leave because my first roommate was a huffy drama queen, but I would think about leaving is my first roommate was a huffy, Drama queen and my second roommate was a conflict avoidant people pleaser who was willing to put up with all sorts of bad behavior in the name of people just getting along, and wasn't willing to present a united front against letting said huffy drama queen know that that shit has got to stop.

With that hell-is-other-people-combo, I'd be sad, but checking out craigslist for new apartments as we speak. Because sometimes you can't change other people's behaviours, and if you don't have the leverage of kicking them out, then it might be you who has to go.
posted by anitanita at 11:31 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think you need to decide what your goals are first. You're not going to fundamentally change your roommate's personality or vice-versa, so what do you really want? More friendly contact? Less complaining? Your roommate to be okay with more minimal contact?
posted by desuetude at 11:36 PM on June 3, 2012

Well, honestly, you don't like her. I think that your complaints about her have more to do with your disagreeing with her attitude rather than anything concrete that she has done wrong. You don't agree with what she says, you don't like the way she says it...

So, ok. Does that mean you get to chastise her as a housemate? No. Not really. You find her negative and her comments to be huffy and judgmental. Has she done anything to really hurt the household? Not clean up, not pay rent, etc? If not, then I don't think you truly can call her on anything. Her attitude is her problem and not yours. You don't have to agree with someone to live with them. To be completely frank, she might be a bit less dire if she didn't (rightfully, it seems) feel that her housemates just sincerely dislike her.

I don't really understand what you want. Do you want her to shut up? That's not really your right to ask that. Do you want her to like you? You might have to try and do that first.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:16 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry, but her getting "huffy" with you because she's had a bad day is really not a call for a sit-down. Her getting violent, or continually going into screaming fits would be, but those are far beyond "huffy".

She just rang me about nothing and I didn't answer
See, I think WF might have something - you assuming a call is about "nothing" and not answering it isn't really respectful to her, and disrespect falls pretty close to incivility. I'm not judging your actions - I have terrible phone anxiety to begin with, and it worsens when certain people call....but if those people accused me of incivility I could understand where they're coming from.

tends to unload about her stressful life, job, in a complaining and negative way that gives you no room to either counsel her in a practical or positive way

This could be part of the problem - I get super-pissy when someone attempts to give me unsolicited advice about how to live my life. Some people like to commiserate - one of my friends and I spend most of our time bitching about our (similar) jobs - neither of us are looking for "answers". It's just a way to unwind, like a verbal diary. Now you're obviously not into this, but your life may get easier if you learn how how to spot those people and deal with them. It might be very frustrating when she thinks she's getting a commiseration session, because you sit down with her and listen, but when you attempt to give advice - it's not what she wants and it's not what you want. So just avoid it. If you know, "how was work?" will -every day- begin a tirade on her horrible boss, don't ask her that - just say, "welcome home" or "dinner's in the fridge" or "hey, want to check out this movie?" or something that will signal you don't want to talk about work.

If she starts a convo like that on her own, don't let her keep going by herself. If you want a conversation with her, jam yourself in there (but NOT with advice for her, because that's not taking care of YOU). Her "Oh my boss is awful!" you: "Oh that sucks. I had a really awful boss two years ago - you'll never guess what he did..... ... ...but that's how I got my new awesome job!" or, if you simply don't want to engage, "oh, man, that sucks - I had a rough day too....I think I just want to veg out in front of the television and not think about anything...." and repeat that for everything. I said I like to commiserate, but I have another friend whose outlook is roses and sunshine, and she's pretty good at letting me know without saying that she's not up for complaining. "Man my boss sucks." "Aw that's a shame....but isn't it such a lovely day?"

is judgey about house stuff yet doesn't contribute...... She ....gets put out if she feels she hasn't got to use as much of the salt and pepper as the rest of us

This is the one thing that strikes me as really weird. If she contributes to shopping bills then I could understand why she'd get annoyed she hasn't gotten the same amount of salt and pepper as other people. If she's chipping in equal amounts then she deserves an equal amount - even for something as small as salt and pepper. But you say she doesn't contribute....? If she doesn't contribute to the purchase of the salt, then why is she using it? Here's the one thing you can talk to her about....

a) if she's not contributing to the grocery bill (as you say) then she doesn't use the groceries you buy. If she wants more salt she needs to buy her own salt.


b) if she is contributing to the grocery bill (and you were just exaggerating when you said she didn't contribute), you might want to evaluate - as a household, not just you versus her, or even 2 against 1, but as three roommates striving for fairness - what's going on with the groceries? Is everyone contributing equal amounts of money but she's eating measurably less? Is it a "share" thing - where she, say, buys the peanut butter for the house and you buy the salt.....but people make peanut butter sandwiches all week and there's minimal baking and salt use.....

I know this all isn't what you want to hear, but from what you actually describe, I agree with The Light Fantastic - it seems like your personalities aren't meshing as wonderfully as with GF, and you want to turn it into more serious of an issue than it is.... More details might change how I'm viewing this, fwiw.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:03 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, yes there are plenty of other details that I've left out for brevity and in the interests of not unloading. I don't actually dislike her, she's nice when she's not a crankypants, we've all hung out. The household is functional, it's just that when she is in a bad mood the household suffers. And that I know she has specific issues with me that she's not owning up to but it's manifesting instead as snippiness. That's the only reason for the conversation and I was asking for advice on how to remain calm (or maintain poise - that was a much better way of putting it!).

Anyhoo, I've taken the advice of getting an exit strategy and am on the lookout for another room. Thank you for that idea!
posted by mooza at 2:49 AM on June 4, 2012

On the subject of remaining calm, try to take turns speaking and really listen for the (underlying) issues when your flatmate is speaking.

Secondly, write down the issues you'd like to address and take the paper with you.

I infer that your goal is a more calm & pleasant flat. I think it's reasonable to say that up front. But you should also be prepared to change your behaviour to make that possible...not to compromise your values, but to accommodate her needs if she expresses some to you that you can meet.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 5:43 AM on June 4, 2012

I would not call for a sit-down to clear the air. I would call for a sit-down to check in and see how everyone is doing.

It's a big shift in perspective.

You can start out by saying, WF, "I know that things have been a bit strained lately and if I've contributed to that, I'm sorry. I'd like to discuss ways that we might lighten the mood around here because right now the tension is really a drag."

This is not the time to call anyone out on behavior or make a list of grievances. Be open to hearing things and be prepared to discuss your concerns with her.

"I know that you'd like for me to be a sounding board, and I wish I could do that for you, but I don't think our coping mechanisms are the same. You need to vent, and I tend to look for ways to problem solve, and I think we end up frastrating each other."

Be non-judgmental, be open to hearing and understanding what she's saying. Ask her what she needs from you.

Tell her what you need from her. "I like having a positive environment, what can I do to help you contribute to that vision?"

Blame no one, accept no blame.

If you genuninely like your situation, it's worth it to work it out. You may also offer to let WF out of her agreement, provided you can find someone you'd rather add to the dynamic. But better the devil you know and all of that.

If she is incapable of dealing with you and adjusting her behavior, I guess let her know that when the lease is up, you and GF will be looking for a new third, or a new flat.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:48 AM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

The SET (support, empathy, truth) model was originally developed for therapists working with patients with borderline personality, but it's been helpful to me in dealing with people in everyday life, and I'm not a therapist.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:44 AM on June 4, 2012

You're taking on a lot of anxiety for a very minor-seeming personality clash. I have had roommates who are complainy - roommates I could not get rid of and so I know well how badly it sucks, although there are far worse rooming situations too - but it is really so easy to disengage from other peoples' drama. This sounds like feeding it and making it into a much bigger thing than it needs to be. I personally think it's quite a bit more shitty on the scale of things to make someone feel disliked in their home over something that amounts to a personal quirk. You say she "thinks" you dislike her but then you clearly admit you do so it seems unfair to put that on her. I wonder if you've ever considered any of the flaws you have that might make someone have to put up with you in a living situation. Judging little things harshly rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt is one quality that makes a terrible roommate in my experience. I wouldn't have a sit down meeting over something like this because that reads like an ambush and by this account at least she's done nothing to deserve that. I would try to be better about your own boundaries - she's clearly crossed them and you are probably more upset at yourself for not defending them. Some joking "other-than-that-Mrs-Lincoln-how-was-the-play" type of response when she comes in with a whirlwind of complaints will let her know you aren't going to entertain that kind of thing. Or sincerely ask "did anything good happen today?". You'll probably have to try a variety of responses and do it a few times before it sticks, but if you set the boundary consistently it will stick. Try to take a more detached or bemused stance to some of the dramas and they will roll off your back -- or move and deal with the next set of personalities.
posted by decathexis at 8:06 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like some other commenters, I'm confused about the purpose of this conversation -- it sounds like you already know what her grievances are but you want her to say them to your face, and you want to rebut what she says, and state some grievances of your own. That sounds awful to me -- a straight-up recipe for more upset and unhappiness. I just can't imagine a good outcome to that.

When I am planning for a conversation that I know will be stressful and difficult, I focus myself by deciding in advance what I want the other person to take away from what I say. In this case, you might want that to be something like "mooza acknowledges that in many ways I am a good flatmate, but she finds it exhausting to hear me vent about work when she is tired; she would like to ask me to vent less" or "mooza thinks it's okay for flatmates not to be best friends, but she thinks shouting and outright hostility are crossing a line; she would like me to try to be more controlled." Having a focus statement like that reminds me during the conversation what I'm trying to get done, which keeps me from losing my head and doing something rash. It also pushes my own thinking, because if my focus statement is something like "mooza thinks I am a bad flatmate and wants me to essentially transform my entire personality" well then, I probably have more thinking to do.

Speculating -- I wonder if you are so confrontation-averse that the whole idea of Having A Confrontation crowds out your ability to think about what you want to have happen as a result of it? I have for sure known people for whom that's the case: they end up focused solely on nothing more than surviving the interaction. If it's really hard for you to handle negative emotions well, you might want to try reading the Carol Tavris book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. It's not a self-help/how-to book, but I found it really useful for understanding anger better -- e.g. venting is unhelpful, because expressed anger begets more anger. Lots in it was surprising to me, and contradicted conventional wisdom.
posted by Susan PG at 11:01 AM on June 4, 2012

Oh and by the way -- you say you are worried you will "forget all the good points I wanted to bring up." Actually, that would be totally fine -- good, even.

Again, it goes back to 'what is the purpose of the conversation.' If the purpose is for you to build a case for why she is a crappy flatmate and you are a good flatmate, the conversation is doomed and no good will come of it. If the purpose is for the two of you to develop better shared understanding for how to interact well, then a laundry list of complaints will hurt the conversation, not help it.

One measurement of success will be balance-of-talking. If it's all you talking, and her listening, that is not a good sign. Ideally you'd talk in pretty much equal amounts.
posted by Susan PG at 11:08 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, I've heard some constructive things and some difficult things and they've all been super helpful.
posted by mooza at 3:46 PM on June 4, 2012

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