Communicating With Your College Student: Six Principles to Help You Make the Most of Opportunities

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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 ask the most helpful questions and how to apply some interviewing principles.  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.

 A conversation is not an interview, and we don’t like conversations that begin to feel like interviews – or worse, interrogations.  However, those of us who have experienced well conducted interviews know that a good interview can feel like friendly conversation – and can elicit extremely helpful information.  Thinking about, and applying, a few basic principles of good interviewing may help you make your conversations with your student more productive. 

 We don’t want to suggest that you should strategize every exchange with your student – that’s obviously not the kind of communication that you want.  However, these principles may be most helpful when you need to have a serious or directed conversation with your student. 

 Principle #1: Prepare for your conversation

If you have a serious issue that you need to discuss with your student, take some time to prepare for the conversation.  You may also want to let your student know ahead of time that you need to talk, so that she can prepare as well.  Your conversation will be more productive if you’ve both gathered any information that you need, and thought about what you want to say.  If, for instance, your student is in academic difficulty at school, gather information (or ask her to gather information) about her grades, the reality of academic probation, the process, support available at school.  Then your conversation can go to the next level of how she can work to improve the situation.

 Principle #2: Remember that a conversation is transactional

The term transactional as it is used in communication simply means that both parties participate in the exchange.  Sometimes, especially when we are concerned or upset, we may forget that a good discussion is a two way street.  Remembering our earlier posts about listening, nonverbal cues, and perception checking may be helpful. You need to talk – and you need to listen.  Your student needs to talk – and he needs to listen.  Think of the exchange as a game of catch – both people need to catch the ball – and they need to throw it back – or there’s no game.  It’s obvious.  It’s common sense.  But we sometimes forget.

 Principle #3: Have a beginning and ending in mind

Think of a good interview here.  It has a beginning – a greeting and settling in.  Think about how you want to begin your conversation with your student.  Think about when and where the conversation will take place.  Ease in to the “meat” of the matter.  And think about an ending.  Unfortunately, sometimes we let a conversation go too long until it fizzles and feels unfinished.  Keep an open mind, but think about what end result you are seeking.  Think about whether you want to end with an action plan, or a plan to think about what has been discussed and return to the conversation later.  Think about how much time you have for your conversation and plan accordingly.  If this conversation may require significant time – perhaps because it is very serious or has serious consequences – make sure your student understands that before you begin so he can plan accordingly.  If he can only spare 15 minutes, but you’re anticipating an hour, you may be creating a problem before you begin. 

 Principle #4: Different questions get different results

There are different kinds of questions that you can ask – and you will get different answers.  Using questions carefully may help your conversation to be productive.  Think about the difference between open and closed questions.  Closed questions seek specific answers and sometimes we simply need pieces of information.  “What are your grades for the term?”  “How much rent will you be paying for the apartment?”  Sometimes, however, we want to ask questions that will allow our student to have some latitude in answering and to expand his answers.  “What is your favorite class?” (closed question) may elicit a one word answer, but “Tell me what it was about your history professor that you liked so much?” will give room for a more interesting answer. 

 Principle #5: Some questions can dig deeper

You may ask open questions, but still not feel that you have the information that you need.  Asking secondary or follow-up questions can help you to elicit more information, clarify what you’ve heard, get more complete or accurate information, or get beyond superficial answers.  The use of good listening and perception checking will help with this.  “Tell me more about . . .”  “I don’t understand what you mean by …” “How does that work . . .” or “Why do you feel that way . . .”  all may probe for more information – and send the message that you’ve heard what was said and are interested.

 Principle #6: Follow up afterwards

This is another good interviewing principle.  Interviews often don’t end as you walk out the door.  Sometimes there is a follow-up action desired – or required.  Agree at the end of your conversation whether you are done or need another discussion later.  Agree on who needs to do what.  At the very least, at some time later, thank your student for taking time to talk.  Let her know that you appreciated the conversation.  Acknowledge that it might have been difficult.  You will be building a foundation for the next time.

 Many of these “interviewing” principles may seem obvious.  Several may seem awkward or contrived.  Some parents may already be using these principles without even realizing it.  For some parents, these may be new ideas.  Don’t try to do everything at once, and don’t try to use anything that doesn’t feel comfortable.  But do give some thought to whether you are making the best use of your discussions with your student.  Do remember that good communication takes work and takes practice.  Thinking about what you say, when you say it, what you hear and how you respond can help both you and your student feel more satisfied with your communication.

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