When a Student Comes to You
There are times when a student will approach you with his/her problems. Their intentions may not be clear at first; we all know how difficult it is to talk about our problems at times. Here are some general things to remember:
- Give the person your full attention. If someone asks, "Are you busy?" you need to be truthful. If you are truly swamped at the moment, you might say, "I'm in the middle of _______ right now, but I'm free at _______(whatever time). Can we catch up with each other then?" If the person is visibly upset, his/her needs may take priority over what you are doing at the moment, or you may need to get them connected to someone else.
- Do not promise total confidentiality. Often a student will ask you to promise to tell no one, and that they will only talk with you if you make this promise. Making this promise is not an option. Explain to the student that confidentiality is important to you, and that you do your best to keep information to yourself. Tell the person, however, that your primary concern is his/her safety and the safety of other students, and that you may need to disclose information if doing so will keep the student and/or others out of jeopardy. For example, you might say, "As much as I'd like to promise you total confidentiality, I don't want to make false promises. If I find out you or someone else is in danger, I need to disclose that information, so that I've done what I can to keep people safe. But I hope you'll talk with me anyway, because I really want to be here for you if you need something." If the person refuses to talk with you, encourage him/her to at least talk with someone, and make a few suggestions (i.e., the Counseling Center, Campus Ministry, etc).
- Really Listen. Listening is truly an art. While many of us are tempted to start giving advice right away, chances are good that the person came to you to TALK and be listened to, not to get advice. This applies even if they say they want your advice on something!
- Be Curious. Asking questions is an important part of listening and getting the full picture. Just follow your natural curiosity, and do not be afraid to ask what might seem like "touchy" questions. The person is probably looking for ways to bring up the "touchy" parts, and if you just ask the question naturally, it will provide a great opening for them. If you are wondering if a student might be considering suicide, ask directly. It is a myth that if you talk about suicide you might give someone the idea to kill him or herself.
- Be Reflective. Try to put yourself in that person's shoes as you are listening. As you imagine what he/she might feel like, tell the person. For example, you might say, "Wow, that must have been really scary," or "I can imagine you feel nervous just talking about it," or "If that happened to me, I think I'd be really angry and hurt at the same time." Being reflective will help the person get in touch with his/her feelings and will let the person know that you are listening. Do not say, "I know how you feel," or share a personal story; your primary job is to listen carefully and help the person get in touch with his/her own feelings.
- Ask them if they have a plan for what to do. Sometimes students have a one-time bout of math test anxiety or a roommate problem, and talking about it has helped them figure out what to do. If the plan is solid, and this has been a one-time occurrence for this person then you and he/she might come up with a plan and be done with it. You should, however, let them know what services are available anyway. Provide a list of relevant services (for example, the Counseling Center for test anxiety or the Learning Skills Center for tutoring). Suggest they use these services if the issue comes up again.
- Repeated and/or more severe problems require more intensive referrals. If a student comes to you more than once with a problem, you need to intensify your referral process. Likewise, if this is the first time a student has come to you, but their problem seems to be complicated, you need to intensify your referral process (see referral guidelines below).
Any student with a problem severe enough for you to approach will usually need a more intensive referral.