Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Reading Between the Lines?

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.

This post is the second in a series of five posts that may give you food for thought about how you communicate with your college student. We’re posting one of these articles each week for five weeks.  Some of our suggestions may be common sense reminders, and some may be new ideas for you.  Obviously, communication skills are interrelated, so please consider all of these suggestions together.  Our first post concerned how you listen to your student.  In this post we’ll consider nonverbal communication and the signals that you send and interpret. In future posts we discuss how to check perceptions to make sure you understand what your student is really saying, how to ask helpful questions, and 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.

Most of us think of nonverbal communication as body language, and it is.  However, there are more facets to nonverbal communication than many of us might imagine, even though we use these aspects of communication daily to help us understand people. So, as we discuss nonverbal communication, let’s begin by broadening our definition.  Nonverbal communication is anything that helps to get a message from one person to another without using the meaning of the words.  With this definition, nonverbal communication includes not only body language, but also tone of voice, appearance, timing, facial expressions, and even the atmosphere in which we choose to have a conversation.

Nonverbal messages can often tell us even more than the words that someone is saying (some researchers have suggested that as much as 93% of our understanding may come from nonverbal cues) — and nonverbal messages can be very easily misinterpreted.  Much of nonverbal communication also seems like common sense, however we often forget just how much power nonverbal communication can have.  Some conscious thought about both the nonverbal messages that you receive from your college student and that you send to your college student, may help improve your communication.

  • Watch for body language signals from your student.  Does she seem uncomfortable?  Does she seem much more confident in the way she carries herself?  Is she making eye contact?  (Be careful about jumping to conclusions if she’s not.  This could mean many things.)  Does her body language reinforce or contradict what her words are telling you?
  • Think about the messages your body may be sending.  Are you tense or disinterested?  Do you stop what you’re doing and give your student your full attention?  Do you stand and tower over your student or sit down next to him?  Are you facing your student across a table or sitting next to him on the sofa?  Which position seems most appropriate for the tone of the conversation you are having? Does your facial expression give away your thoughts or mask what you are truly feeling?  Do your physical messages match your words?
  • Listen carefully to your student’s tone of voice.  Think carefully about your own tone of voice.  Obviously, raised voices often reflect anger, but they may also reflect fear.  Tone of voice may be one of the first forms of communication to reveal emotion.  Listen carefully and you may hear much more than words.
  • Appearance is a powerful form of communication.  Are there changes in your student’s physical appearance?  Before you make judgments or jump to conclusions, think about what your student may be saying.  Is she asserting her independence?  Demonstrating a new direction for her life?  Revealing an underlying health or emotional issue? Your student may be communicating through her clothing, hairstyle, new tattoos or piercings, or other aspects of the way that she chooses to look.   Look for clues and take your cue about how to respond.
  • Think of time as a source of communication.  When and where you talk with your student can make a difference.  Respect your student’s schedule and needs, but also let him know that you need some time from him as well.  Think about when and where you choose to communicate.  Make an appointment to have a serious conversation.  When you both set aside some time to talk, you send each other a message about the importance of the conversation.
  • Place, or space, is yet another form of nonverbal communication.  If you need to have a serious talk with your student, you may want to meet at the kitchen table, or even choose a more neutral location such as a coffee shop.  Think about whether you want your conversation to be public or whether it should occur at home.  Some topics may be better handled at the kitchen table (more businesslike?) and some may be better suited to sitting together on the sofa in front of the fire (more personal?).  Choosing your location, if you have control over it, can help to set the tone for the interaction.

One of the factors that makes our nonverbal communication so powerful is that it is often unconscious.  Bringing some awareness and conscious effort to the way that we receive and send our messages can help us to interpret those messages more accurately and fully.  Whether we communicate with our student in person, by phone, through skype, or in some other fashion, watching for the cues from him — and thinking about the cues that we send — can make those moments of contact even more meaningful.

Once we think we have received nonverbal (or verbal) messages, we can improve our communication even more by checking to see whether our interpretations are accurate. Our next ”Communicating With Your College Student” post will address how to use perception checking techniques to test your accuracy at interpreting messages.

Related Posts:

Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Listening?

Need to Talk to Your College Student? Choose Your Time and Place Carefully

Communicating With Your College Student: Are You Sure You Understand?

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