Students who have Personal Problems
At one time or another most academic advisors have had a student come in to discuss a personal problem. In many cases a sympathetic ear and emotional support are all the student seeks or needs. In some cases, however, the student might need assistance that you are unable to provide. In these instances you need to decide whether or ot to refer the student for additional help and, if so, how to go about making the suggestions that further help is required. This section suggests effective strategies for listening and for discussing personal problems with students. Additionally, it outlines some common symptoms of personal distress so that you will be better able to know when a student is suffering with a problem, and it provides guidance on how to decide when to refer a student for further assistance. Finally, procedures for making a referral are outlined.
Active Listening Skills
To be successful in helping students with personal problems, you must first have a clear understanding of the exact nature of the problem. Attaining understanding requires listening in an active and participatory manner. If you are a good listener, you will notice that others are drawn to you. Listening is a commitment and a compliment. It is a commitment to understanding how other people feel and how they see their world. It means putting aside your own prejudices and beliefs, your anxieties and self-interests, so that you can see the world from the other person's point of view. Listening is a compliment because it says to the other person: "I care about what is happening to you; your life and your experience are important." People usually respond positively to the compliment of listening.
Successful listening requires a number of simultaneous activities: paraphrasing, clarifying, feedback, empathizing, being open, and being aware.
Paraphrasing is absolutely necessary to good listening because it keeps you busy trying to understand what the other person means, rather than blocking or having your thoughts wander to what you will say next. You can paraphrase by using such lead ins as "What I hear you saying is...In other words...So basically how you felt was...Let me understand...What was going on for you was...What happened was...Do you mean...? You should paraphrase every time someone says something important to you.
Clarifying, which often goes along with paraphrasing, means to ask questions until you get a more complete picture. Since your intention is to understand fully what is being said, you often have to ask for more information and background to get a fuller picture of the circumstances surrounding a problem. Concentrate on the main ideas and not the illustrative material; examples, stories, statistics, and the like are important but usually do not represent the main points. Examine them only to see if they prove, support, or define the main ideas. Clarifying helps you sharpen your concentration so that you hear more than vague generalities. Clarifying also lets the other person know that you are interested.
After you have paraphrased and clarified what has been said, you need to share, in a nonjudgmental way, what you thought, felt, or sensed. The feedback that you give should be immediate, honest, and supportive. Immediate means giving the feedback as soon as you fully understand the communication. Honest means expressing your true feelings. Supportive means gently and sensitively reacting to what you hear and feel.
Empathize with the student--try to put yourself in the student's place as if you were the student but without ever losing the "as if" condition. Concentrate on what the student is saying--focus your attention on the student's words, ideas, and feelings.
Being open as you listen means that you hear the whole statement, the entire communications, before judging. If you are judging and finding fault, you will have difficulty listening. Recognize your own prejudices--try to be aware of your feelings toward the student, the subject, and the occasion. Allow for these pre-judgments in formulating your feedback.
There are two components to listening with awareness. One is to compare what is being said to your knowledge of history, people, and the way things are. You should do this without judgment, simply making note of how a communication fits with known facts. The second way to listen with awareness is to hear and observe congruence. Does the student's tone of voice, emphasis, facial expression, and posture fit with the content of his or her communication? If someone is telling you that his father has just died but smiles and leans back in the chair, the message is not making sense. There is no congruence. If body, face, voice, and words fail to fit, your job as a listener is to clarify and give feedback about the discrepancy. If you ignore the incongruity, you are settling for an incomplete or confusing message.
A student coming to you with a personal problem clearly wants you to listen and will look for clues to prove that you are. A number of verbal and nonverbal behaviors can help you listen and can help you communicate the fact of your total attention. Here are a few suggestions on how to be a total listener:
- Stop talking--you cannot listen while talking.
Maintain good eye contact.
Lean slightly forward to indicate your involvement.
Reinforce the speaker by nodding or paraphrasing.
Do not interrupt. Give the person time to finish what he or she has to say.
Clarify by asking questions.
Move away from distractions.
Be committed, even if you are angry or upset, to understanding what the student says.