Your student is home from college for a break. It is your chance to catch up and touch bases about the semester. Perhaps it hasn’t gone as well as everyone had hoped. Perhaps your student is concerned about choosing or changing a major. Perhaps his social life isn’t what he had hoped – or perhaps there is too much social life. Whatever the issue might be, as college parents, we feel that we this is our chance – and probably our responsibility – to share important advice with our student.
But wait! That might not be what your student needs most from you right now.
What your student might need most – at least for a while – is for you to be a sounding board for her.
Serving as a Sounding Board
One definition of a sounding board is a thin partition behind a podium to reflect the speaker’s sound out to the audience. It is actually sometimes called a “tester.” Of course, another definition is a person who listens to someone to allow the speaker to try out or rehearse an idea in order to explore it more fully, evaluate it or to measure its acceptability.
Think about both of these definitions as you think about your role as a sounding board for your student. What your student may need most is for you to just listen as he explores and “tests” what’s going on, what goals he has, what problems might be getting in the way, what solutions might exist. It’s hard not to jump in to share your advice, but try to listen and reflect what you hear. Let him test out his thoughts. Let him evaluate what he hears himself saying.
As a sounding board you can provide a perspective that your student might not have otherwise. She’ll be looking for your reactions to measure what she’s exploring, but she may not be ready yet for your advice. It may be hard to hold your tongue, but you’re not simply being a passive listener. By helping your student dig deeper, you’ll help her develop her goals, find new perspectives and unique angles to her issues, think about the bigger picture and hopefully find some action items that will help her to move forward.
You become a thinking partner, helping your student find her own ways of approaching her problem. You give ownership to her. You’ll help her sift through the thinking clutter that may be getting in the way and enhance her ability to make decisions.
What do you need to do to be a thinking partner?
Serving as a good sounding board isn’t always easy. In fact, it is often more difficult that giving advice. As parents, we’re comfortable with the advice-giving. We’re not often comfortable giving up the driver’s seat to our student. There are three qualities to keep in mind as you try out this new role.
- Try to see things through your student’s lens. Look at the problem from her point of view (which may be very different from your own view).
- Approach the situation with no agenda. Don’t view the conversation as an opportunity to direct your student toward the goal you have in mind. Remember, use her lens.
- Use quality questioning techniques to help her explore. Remember, your task is to help them dig deeper, not to direct her toward your goal.
Being a good sounding board doesn’t mean that you can’t respond. But you need to think about your response. Your job is to reflect what you hear. Your job is to put things in perspective. Your job is to provide the bigger picture and clear away the unnecessary clutter. That is very different from offering advice about what to do.
Shifting roles later
There may be a time for advice later; either because you feel you need to share it, or perhaps because your student asks for it. You’ll decide then whether to give that advice or to step back and let your student figure things out. But functioning as a quality sounding board is a crucial step toward helping your student think about his life.
Rather than asking for advice, your student may simply (actually not so simply) be asking you one question, “What do you see that I don’t see?”
Helping your student see more clearly may also give you an opportunity to see him in a new way – a double benefit!