My friends will be the first people to tell you I’m not a very emotional person. In grad school, I often got called out for my 1,000 mile stares and my somewhat less-than-compassionate responses to personal dilemmas. I’m not entirely sure why my emotional intelligence is lacking, but I’ve just never been much of a feeler when it comes to addressing emotions, especially in others.
I mean, I can tell when someone is happy, upset, or angry. But when it comes time to help them with whatever issue they are facing, I struggle to map out the proper response. I tend to try to take what seems to be the logical, practical route, which is rarely the answer anyone wants.
The counseling component of being a Student Affairs professional has always terrified me a little bit because of that. I can be supportive and am always ready to listen, but dread a conversation or issue getting emotional.
Due to my unease with it, I used to want to ignore situations that seemed like they might get to that point. I’d ask someone if they were “Okay?”, get the courtesy head nod, or the infamous “I’m fine.” and I’d leave it there. Even if I could tell there was something still bothering them, I felt like I’d done my duty as a decent human by asking.
But obviously, that strategy is far from ideal, especially when working with students. In counseling theories class in graduate school, my professors stressed the importance of practicing attending behavior. Attending, if done correctly, will encourage people to open up and talk freely about their feelings. Which is all well and good, but what am I supposed to do with those emotions and feelings once they’re out in the air?
This is another one of those occasions where, no matter how badly I want to or how hard I studied, there is really no way to learn how to do it from a book. Or what I thought I knew was all-but-pointless once it came time to do it. Luckily, I have students that are willing to help me learn.
The biggest lesson learned over the past 8-9 months is that when a student, or anyone really, is expressing emotions, they just want their voices heard. They want affirmation that you are aware of their circumstances and understanding that you recognize how they feel. They want empathy, and if there is something you can do to take action on the situation that’s triggering those emotions, all the better.
I had one of those situations recently with a student. They were concerned about the way things were being handled in the building regarding an issue we’d been having. Even though I’d sat down with them and listened to their concerns several times, they were still upset about the situation, and suddenly, in their eyes, I wasn’t the person who was going to be able to solve it. The student didn’t feel like I cared, simply because I didn’t respond to the sentiments she was expressing. She ended up wandering into the office of another administrator on campus. That administrator called me afterwards to tell me how she and my student had an hour long conversation, starting with the issue at hand, and winding all the way back into an underlying issue that has had the student on edge to begin with.
If I had taken the student’s concerns to heart more from the beginning, and dug a little deeper, I could have helped that student a lot sooner and resolved the issues we were having in the building.
Maybe one day I’ll feel really adept at responding to the emotions and feeling of those I’m working with. But for now, I’ll continue to work to understand emotions of my residents and react accordingly. Maybe that’s why we’re SA practitioners – we have to keep practicing to get better.
This post is part of the Emerging SA Pro series following 4 awesome people: Alexandria, Doug, Emily, and Alexander, as they blog monthly about 1 year of their journey as either a new SA Pro or SA grad student. We are proud to help them share their stories as they break into our field.
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