Managing conflict

Different people have different expectations and styles of working or living together. Sometimes that can lead to conflict. This article will help you recognise causes of conflict and proposes strategies to resolve it.


Everyone will experience challenging personal situations and potentially conflict at some point during their time at university. These can be stressful and cause high levels of anxiety, especially for autistic students. This section of the toolkit is designed to offer advice that might help to deal with these incidents in a way that helps to diffuse or manage them most effectively.

Based on autistic students’ experiences of university, the sorts of things that can generate conflict include:

  • A lack of awareness and understanding about autism
  • Being thought of as rude when really you are just struggling with a social or sensory environment
  • Feeling let down by someone
  • People not understanding that you need your own space at times
  • Misinterpreting what someone has said, especially if it is sarcastic or ironic
  • Different levels of hygiene in shared houses / accommodation
  • Team members not contributing equally in group work activities / assessments (see the Group Work activity)
  • Where the University has not made sufficient provisions or adjustments

How could this affect me?

Often the clues that there is an issue between friends or housemates can be very subtle and rely heavily on decoding body language or passive aggressive actions. Examples of these might include

  • someone leaving the room abruptly when a housemate enters;
  • leaving notes on a pile of dirty plates that says “Thanks for doing the dishes!” (when they really mean – “Please wash, dry and put away the dishes that you use!”);
  • or rolling their eyes when someone is talking.

This can be especially challenging for some autistic students who might struggle to identify or decode these messages.

Caught in the middle

You might find that you are caught in the middle of a conflict situation between two friends or housemates, or even that the tension is directed towards you. Therefore, it can be useful to know how to identify conflict early and to deal with it effectively.

What to do next?

Talk to others who can help you identify the source of the conflict and possible solutions that will allow you to resolve the matter and restore the relationship.

Practical tips

  • Stop. Don’t try to resolve the conflict if you are emotionally upset or angry.
  • Don’t just ignore it. If you are becoming anxious or stressed by a conflict then you need to do something about it.
  • Get perspective. Talk over the situation with someone who is outside of it; this could be a mentor, friend, counsellor, or your parents.
  • Write it down. Sometimes writing out what is troubling you can be helpful for helping you think through the situation and also the possible solutions.
  • Look at it from all sides. You might be frustrated that someone is not cleaning the bathroom each week but could they be stressed or too busy with a demanding course?
  • Talk to those involved. It can be helpful to identify a time and place, so that you can really discuss the matter fully.
  • Stick to the facts. Outline clearly if there are things that are bothering you or if you feel that there is some tension that needs addressing; for example “It upset me when…” or “It is unhygienic when dirty dishes are left for three days”.
  • Identify solutions. The best outcome will be one where you can resolve the matter positively, so as well as explaining the problem, think about possible solutions as well. These might be practical, like establishing a rota for cleaning or explaining in more depth about how autism affects you; for example “at the end of a day of lectures and seminars I have used up all my energy being social and I just need space in my room alone – I’m not being rude, honest!”
  • Give it time. Friendships that have been damaged by conflict can take time to heal. You may need to allow time to rebuild that relationship.

Questions to think about

  • Who can you talk to about the conflict or situation?
  • Where can you go to relax if and when the conflict is causing you distress?
  • What would be the ideal outcome?

Additional information and links

Our Residence Life team can help you manage conflict with your housemates.  Find out how to contact them here.

About the author

This article was written by Jonathan Vincent, Senior Lecturer at York St. John University.