During my work term at the Office of the Student Ombuds, I have had many opportunities to reflect on what makes communication effective, particularly in the case of conflict resolution. I have seen students who speak confidently and easily, and their situations often benefit greatly as a result.
I have also been the uncomfortable witness to situations in which communication has failed spectacularly because of the ways students represent themselves and negotiate their interests. In meetings in which important discipline decisions are being made, many times I have wished I could stop everything and tell the student to change how he or she is communicating. While I can’t always do this, I can share the bad communication habits that I have observed in an attempt to help students avoid them in the future.
I have often seen students who tend to get caught up in what they want to get out of a certain situation, and are blind to any alternatives. I can recall one particular student who feebly begged a professor to reverse his decision. The professor repeatedly refused and tried to make the student understand why he made his decision, but the student was completely closed off and was not willing to hear reason. This often results in the conversation moving in circles with little or no progress being made. While I can appreciate that students in these situations are not always thinking completely rationally, it is important that they occasionally check themselves and make sure they are not getting caught up in narrow-mindedness.
Another flaw I have noticed among some students is an underestimation of the importance of framing difficult conversations. The best way to start off a conversation is by explaining the intention of the meeting as you see it, and what you hope to get out of it. This is a helpful first step that will show the other person that you are taking the situation seriously and it will also strongly indicate that you plan to be fair and friendly throughout the conversation.
If a student is facing disciplinary action, one of the best things they can do at the start of a meeting is apologize for the mistake they made and try to recognize how it impacted everyone involved. By doing this, the student can clear up any doubts that the decision-maker may have about him or her, and thus facilitate an amiable meeting by showing that they are truly sorry — not just sorry for getting caught.
While I remain firm in my optimistic belief that anyone can be a proficient communicator, I also believe that some students have to work harder than others. There are many strategies that students can use to get the most out of their meetings in school and work but, above all, I have found that students see the most success when they approach their meetings with open and respectful attitudes, and a commitment to fairness and progress.
Josh Hillaby is a fourth-year Arts student majoring in English. He is currently extending his degree and helping his fellow students by interning at the University’s Office of the Student Ombuds through the Arts Work Experience Program (AWE).