Communicating With Your College Student: Is the Climate Right?

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When your child leaves home for college, you worry about losing contact.  She will be living at college, and perhaps not returning home for several weeks or months, so you worry.  However, with some effort on your part, your communication with your student may become even more meaningful than when she was home.

 In this article we consider how to frame some of your messages so your student may be willing to listen.  We hope that thinking about how you listen and talk to your student may help you to keep all of your communication doors wide open.

 Communication with your college student is important.  You work hard at it.  You provide opportunities, listen to your student, try to be aware of what is being said between the lines, you ask the right questions, and yet you sometimes may feel as though your student becomes defensive or reluctant to tell you about his thoughts and feelings.  Yes, it is possible that your student just may not want, or be able, to talk to you right now.  But it is also possible that you might be able to do more to create a supportive and open climate that will encourage your student to share her feelings.  Communication researcher Jack Gibb has suggested six areas in which we sometimes create a defensive communication climate rather than the supportive one that we desire.  We’d like to share some of these potential pitfalls and offer some suggestions for you to increase your positive communication.

 #1 – Be descriptive

Use description rather than evaluation.  As you are discussing an issue with your student, be specific about describing what you observe rather than evaluating or judging.  Focus on what and how rather than your judgment about the situation.  Evaluations often sound like blame.  Be careful of loaded words that carry judgments of right or wrong, good or bad. 

 #2 – Resolve to work together to find a solution

Use a problem orientation rather than taking control.  Make sure that your student understands that you want to work with her on finding a solution to the problem at hand rather than simply bringing her around to your way of thinking.  Focus on the task or problem.  Don’t try to manipulate her.  Ask questions that lead to cooperation rather than coercion.

 #3 – Discuss your feelings openly

Use spontaneity rather than strategy.  At first it sounds as though having a strategy is good.  We suggested in our post on interviewing techniques that you have an end result in mind.  However, strategic communication means that you are trying to direct your student rather than being open to really considering his ideas.  Make sure that your conversation doesn’t have hidden motives.  Try not to have a script, but rather be sure to listen and respond genuinely to what your student has to say.

 #4 – Value your student’s point of view

Use empathy rather than neutrality.  Again, neutrality sounds good on the surface.  But being neutral often means that you don’t care.  Obviously, you do care.  You are not indifferent.  You are interested and/or concerned and you are trying to be understanding.  You want to respond to your student’s feelings and thoughts.  It is often a difficult task to try to understand your student’s perspective on an issue, but remembering that it may be different from your perspective, checking your perceptions, and honestly expressing your concern will go a long way.

 #5 – Treat your student as an equal

Use equality rather than superiority.  This may be a tall order for a parent.  We are used to being in control and having the answers.  Sometimes it seems as though that is our role as a parent.  Recognizing the adult status of your student may take practice, and it may take time. Try to accept your student on his own terms. Depending on the issue, you may still have final say, but acknowledging the value of your student’s opinions and feelings, accepting (although not necessarily agreeing with) his viewpoints and ideas, shows respect for his status.

 #6 – Explore new solutions

Use provisionalism rather than certainty.  It is good to be sure of yourself, but sometimes that sense of certainty closes doors.  Try to express a willingness to explore new ideas with your student – perhaps new ideas that neither of you has considered before.  Recognize the importance of your student’s contributions to a solution – and be sure to let her know that you want her input.  Invite her views – no matter how alternative they may seem.  You are in this together.

 Each communication choice that you make – from your listening, to your nonverbal behavior, perception checking, questioning and attitudes – contributes to creating a climate or tone for exchanges with your college student.  You will have brief exchanges and long, serious discussions.  You will disagree and probably argue.  You will share ideas and discover new solutions.  You may make wonderful discoveries about each other. 

 

Thinking about, and working on, your communication skills does not mean that you and your college student will not have conflicts.  Conflict is inevitable in relationships in which you communicate honestly, and conflicts can be a healthy way to explore this new relationship.  How you handle conflict, how you use communication skills, can make the difference in a relationship that will continue to grow and deepen.

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