It’s been emotional: how to manage difficult student interactions

Submitted by miranda.prynne on Tue, 02/03/2021 - 09:00
Student advisors often bear a heavy emotional burden when trying to assist students. Meg Cohen offers advice on how to manage such emotionally challenging situations
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It’s been a stressful 12 months for university staff and students alike, with everyone facing their own challenges. This has meant that at times student advisors have shouldered a heavy emotional burden when trying to assist and advise students.

There is plenty of technical advice out there about providing accurate information and adhering to policies, but there is less guidance on how we, as advisors, should navigate those situations as human beings and manage our responses to what can be very difficult, highly fraught issues.  

This is even tougher when advisors don’t share a physical space that allows us to support one other more easily. Now more than ever, advisors need tools to help manage their own emotional reactions to communications from students. Drawing on advising experience and facilitation training, student advisors might find the following process to manage emotional reactions helpful:

If you are having a strong emotional reaction to an email from a student: Resist, Process, Shift, Respond

1. Resist the urge to react 

Take two minutes. Breathe. Stretch. Don’t ignore the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Listen to it and explore it. Why are you feeling this way? The lifespan of an emotion is 90 seconds. Give yourself time to physically process the feeling. 

The student’s urgency is not your urgency. How long can this sit and wait? Emails do not require an immediate response, especially if you don’t feel emotionally prepared to do so. Flag it and come back to it – in an hour, later in the day, or the next day if that is possible. 

2. Process your reaction 

What keeps emotions lingering are the stories we tell ourselves about them, usually that the situation should be other than it is, or that we should feel differently about it. Give yourself permission to experience your emotions. The way you are feeling, however you are feeling, is OK and is normal. As you process: 

Find your sanctuary. What is your happy place? Where do you feel safe, supported, and calm? This might be a physical space or an activity such as walking, running, dancing, or even just deep breathing. Spend some time in that place to process before coming back to the issue at hand. 

Vent. Reach out to someone who cares more about you than the issue. The important part here is social connection, and that while you may not share a physical space, you are not alone. Consider whether venting will escalate your reaction rather than helping to process it. As you are venting, picture those emotions actually venting out of you – envision yourself physically letting them go. 

Reflect. Why do you do this work? Why are you here? Think about your core values. If it’s helpful, write it down. Examples: I value care and kindness. I value holding space for others. I value being a trusted advisor. 

3. Shift your mindset 

Empathise. What must this student be going through on a personal level that would cause them to send this kind of message? You can’t know, and it’s not your place to speculate, but just take a second to try to understand how the student might be viewing the situation. They are balancing work, life, and family on top of their schoolwork in a pandemic. Consider that this student feels safe communicating with you in this format and they trust you to hold space for their emotions. 

Detach. Alternatively, if you feel too invested in the student and their situation, or like you are personally responsible for their academic success, take a step back. Remember that all you can do is offer recommendations and help the student make a fully informed decision. The choice of what to do with the options you offer is ultimately up to the student. As an advisor, you have influence but no control. Consider the difference between showing care and taking personal responsibility. 

4. Respond 

Who else needs to know about this? Reach out to your assistant dean. If you are having a strong reaction another perspective is important, and chances are the issue may escalate. 

Have someone look at the draft response. Craft a thoughtful response that does not defend or justify. Consider your intention and the timing. Have someone else such as another advisor or your assistant dean look it over before sending.  

We all encounter challenging communications and situations in work which can elicit strong emotional reactions so this advice could be useful to anyone in academia and beyond. 

Meg Cohen is senior assistant dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies and has a certificate in facilitation.  

Student advisors often bear a heavy emotional burden when trying to assist students. Meg Cohen offers advice on how to manage such emotionally challenging situations