I have a new student sitting in my office, and I have just asked her the same question she has been asked at least five different times since her initial admissions appointment: “Tell me more about yourself.” I ask all my students to tell me about themselves because it is important for me, as a professional, to understand where my students have come from in order to get them where they want to go.
As a former communication professional turned student affairs professional, I still view interactions with my students through a communicative lens. Specifically, I love hearing stories from my students because I believe narratives shed light on human nature. Even the smallest detail from a student can help me devise an academic plan or suggest an activity in which they might be interested. Mostly, though, I enjoy hearing students talk about themselves because they have such different backgrounds than me.
Understanding another background, personal point of view, or mission can assist us, as student affairs professionals, in providing an outstanding educational opportunity to our students. Steven Covey said it best in his pivotal work The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 5 is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”1 As human beings, we want to share information with each other – it is part of our nature. We are inherent storytellers and these stories help us form relationships and create contexts for future interactions.
But too often, we focus on making sure another has heard our point of view or statement instead of listening to others and discovering the true intent of someone’s actions. The difference between listening and hearing cannot be underestimated here. Hearing is an automatic response and does not require the absorption of information. Listening allows a person to process information and use higher order thinking skills while interacting with another individual.2 Listening, real listening, is a student affairs professionals’ best friend – it can foster relationships, understanding, and compassion.
Moreover, listening can aid in rich interactions. Since we are also social by nature, we thrive on substantive interactions. Engaging in dialogue, asking questions, and showing respect regardless of a different point of view can also help a professional understand a student. Creating lasting and meaningful interactions show acknowledgement of the other person’s narrative, validating their experience, which can help a student blossom within the college or university.
And this philosophy isn’t just for the professional-student relationship. Inter-professional relationships and interactions can also benefit from this mindset. Just because we are all student affairs professionals doesn’t mean that we are exempt from listening to each other. Being in the same field doesn’t mean we all share the same stories or backgrounds. We may have several experiences in common, but we do ourselves a disservice by not taking the time to understand each other and focus on how that information can create better working environments (which ultimately benefit our students too!).
I have always used Covey’s standard when working in the communication field, and I found that it is just as relevant and important in student affairs work. It goes right to the heart of what we try to do with our students and lends itself nicely to our mission to be empathic and compassionate to all. So, when my student takes a deep breath to begin telling her life story for the fifth time, I want her to understand I’m doing this because I want to understand her, not only as a student, but as a human being who is spending some time with me.
- Covey, S. (2013). The seven habits of highly effective people: Anniversary edition. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Carmack, A. (2006, July/August). Communication matters: Part I. Topics in Patient Safety, 6(4), 3.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kevin Kruger on Avoiding Burnout in Student Affairs