Practicing Empathy To Get Along With Roommates

Practicing Empathy
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.
– Mohsin Hamid

Whether living on your own for the first time, getting started in your career, or simply due to financial limitations, many of us will find ourselves living in a shared household at some point in our lives. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, almost 1 in 5 American households reported an “additional adult”, i.e., roommates.

Rooms and roommates found on websites like Craigslist are becoming the norm. That doesn’t make us any better equipped with the situation, however.

When moving in with strangers, or living with a cross-assemblage of different types of people, assembled at random, the odds are good that you will be living with people coming from a different background than yourself. For some, bumping techno at 12:30 a.m. is an attractive trait in a household, meaning non-stop good times, the kind of place where you can have an after-party. For someone in Graduate School, however, they may be contemplating committing a crime, just to get a quiet night’s sleep in the county lock-up.

Shared households are pretty much the norm for young people in Portland, Or., where I live. By my estimations, I have lived with 23 different human beings (plus 5 cats and a dog) since I moved here four-and-a-half years ago. Some have been practicing vegans, or passionate vegetarians. Some smoke cigarettes. Some don’t. Some are daily drinkers. Some are teetotalers. Some are spiritually devout. Some like to bake cupcakes and go bowling. There’s just no telling who you’re going to live with, and sometimes, we don’t have the luxury of being picky. We just need to get a body in a room, to get the rent paid.

That means you’re going to have to live with these people, after the fact.

Not only do I currently live with 6 people (whittled down from 8), I’m also a little bit older than the common demographic, and I work from home. When my house is in an uproar (which it frequently is), I suffer like crazy and can’t get any work done. So I’ve had a lot of time, and a great deal of fervency in developing these tools for living in harmony.


Really listen. Good communication is the heart of not only empathy, but a smoothly-running, peaceful household. Talk with your roommates. And if you’re a person who is not great at face-to-face encounters, consider having a running dialogue in e-mail or on social media, to check in and see where others are at, and what they’re going through. A lot of times, we think we know why people do what they do, but most of the time, we’re wrong. Good listening will help you discover people’s real motivations, which may help you relate, and be more patient and understanding.

But it’s all relative
Even if you don’t understand
Well it’s all understood

– Jack Johnson, “It’s All Understood”


Not only do I live with a lot of people, I also write fiction, meaning I have not only a greater need to understand other people, I also have one of the most powerful tools for implementing understanding. Stories give us the opportunity to contemplate how other people think, how they would react to different situations, and to imagine their back stories, to better understand where they’re coming from.

There are so many things that are universal to being human – being hungry and tired, stressed, excited, passionate, yearning…

Once you really dig in, you might discover you’re not that different, after all, which creates a stronger foundation to draw upon, when you’re feeling frustrated or powerless.

Resentment Lists

I have employed this tool many times over the years. It’s one of the most powerful assets in my arsenal. It works like this.

  1. The Resentment: Place the person, place, or thing which has been upsetting you in the first column.
  2. The particulars: Make an itemized list of every time you were resentful at the object of your resentment. Angry at Sally for leaving her dishes in the sink? Write it down! It feels good to get it off your chest, decreasing the likelihood of exploding all over that person.
  3. What it effects: In many ways, humans are very complicated creatures, but in many ways, we’re very simple. So much of our anger, our sadness, and a whole range of negative emotions stem from fear – fear of not having what we need, or what people think of us. Anger is commonly a mask for fear, an attempt at justification. It takes courage to admit you’re afraid, and this column helps you to have sympathy for yourself. Write down why you think the thing you’re resentful about bothers you so much. Are you afraid you won’t realize your dreams? Are you acting out of childhood conditioning? The third column brings greater self-awareness, and helps you to see your own values, and what you need to have a peaceful household.
  4. Your part: This is hands down the most useful column of the list – the part that we play in our household dramas. Perhaps you’re holding on to resentments from before? Maybe you lied, or haven’t been entirely truthful? Sometimes our part is simply that we can’t afford to live anywhere else, which is unfortunate, but even writing that down may help you to remember, “This too shall pass,” and to work hard to get to a place where you no longer have to cohabitate.
  5. File the list away: The most important thing about this tool is writing it down. After the list is done, it has served its purpose. You understand the situation better and can deal with it appropriately.

Where the resentment lists really shine is to help you see patterns in your own life. When you are having the same problem, with roommates, loved ones, family members, year in and year out, it becomes difficult to ignore, and you start to feel kind of silly, saying the same thing over and over. Eventually, you might become willing to change your own behavior.

Do Things Together

It’s tempting to think of people as abstractions – characters playing out in our own private psychodramas. Doing things together, sharing common interests and building new memories will help you to think of your roommates as people, which may make it harder to curse their blood at 2 a.m.

House Meetings

This is kind of a point of contention with some shared households, who don’t care for the stuffy formality, but in my experience, after years and years of living with scores of people, house meetings are pretty much essential for keeping the peace, getting everybody on the same page, checking in and seeing where everybody’s at.

For your house meeting, if it’s at all possible, consider meeting at a neutral outside place – a bar, restaurant, or park – to start. Pick someplace relatively quiet, where you can hear each other without shouting. This creates a level playing field where everyone feels like they can be heard, outside of the power structures of the household. You might do something immediately following your meeting, like eating nachos or ice cream, or going for a walk, building some new memories, and making the house meetings kind of a treat, to be looked forward to, rather than dreaded.

Empathy is a tool that, once you get comfortable with it, will serve you in every aspect of your life. Not only will it make you a better roommate, it may help you be a better novelist, manager, marketer, parent, lover… the list goes on and on. Best to start practicing now.

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Author My First Apartment
J Simpson

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J. Simpson is a prolific freelance writer, blogger, and musician, based out of Portland, Or. He is fascinated with every aspect of modern living, and how to make the best of it, frequently writing about business, technology, and spirituality, as well as every aspect of culture - music, art, literature, cinema, TV, and comics. For more from J., follow him on Twitter at @for3stpunk.

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