How to Enhance Communication with Students

Faculty and staff desire to assist students in distress, but students may have difficulties communicating their needs. Students may lack self-confidence in approaching a professor or staff member and may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in expressing their concerns. The purpose of this section is to highlight a few communication skills that may be helpful in your interactions with students.

Helpful Communication Skills

  • The physical setting in which the interaction occurs can enhance or interfere with communication. Actively moving away from distractions can convey to the student your interest in them. Likewise, getting objects such as chairs or tables out from between you reduces barriers to communication.
  • Short beginning phrases lead the student to discussion, e.g., "I have time to talk now if you would like." "I'm interested in hearing more about that."
  • Open-ended questions facilitate conversation beyond simply “yes” or “no” responses, e.g. "What is on your mind?" "How do you usually handle this kind of problem?" "What makes this seem difficult?"
  • Short phrases help to keep discussion going, e.g., "I see." "I understand." "Tell me more."
  • Paraphrasing, or rephrasing the content in your own words, conveys to the student that you are listening to get the message right and encouraging further elaboration. You can paraphrase by using lead-ins such as, "Let me understand" "So what happened was?" “So what you’re saying is”
  • Clarifying often goes along with paraphrasing to help you get more of the picture from a vague or unclear explanation. Asking questions beginning with "Are you saying that?" or "Do you mean that?" followed by a rephrasing of the message helps to check the accuracy of what you heard the student say.
  • Feeling description, or rephrasing the affective part of the message, responds to the student's feelings to convey understanding, e.g., "You (seem, are, feel) angry, hurt, afraid, etc." Using descriptive phrases can be helpful: "You felt like the wind was knocked out of you." "You felt like running out of the room."
  • Offering feedback by sharing your reactions and feelings non-judgmentally helps the student clarify the situation. Feedback is best given as soon as you fully understand the communication, after paraphrasing and clarifying. It is helpful to state your real reaction in a supportive way, e.g., "There are still some things to work on, but I think you are making progress."

What To Do: Initial Contact With Student

Openly acknowledging to the student that you are aware of her/his distress, that you are sincerely concerned about their welfare, and that you are willing to help them explore their alternatives, can have a profound effect. We encourage you, whenever possible, to speak directly to the student when you sense that he/she is in academic and/or personal distress. When initiating contact with a student whom you are concerned about:

  • Request to see the student in private.
  • Briefly acknowledge your observations and perceptions of their situation and express your concerns directly and honestly.
  • Listen carefully to what the student is troubled about and see the issue(s) from their point of view without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing.
  • Strange and inappropriate behavior should not be ignored. The student can be informed that such behavior is distracting and inappropriate.
  • Your receptivity to an alienated student will allow them to respond more effectively to your concerns.
  • Involve yourself only as far as you want to go. At times, in an attempt to reach or help a troubled student, you may become more involved than time or skill permits. Extending oneself to others always involves some risk but can be a gratifying experience when kept within realistic limits.