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 their social life isn’t what they 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.
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 they explore and ”test” what’s going on, what goals they have, 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 your student test out their thoughts. Let them evaluate what they hear themselves saying.
As a sounding board you can provide a perspective that your student might not have otherwise. They’ll be looking for your reactions to measure what they’re exploring, but they 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 them develop their goals, find new perspectives and unique angles to their issues, think about the bigger picture and hopefully find some action items that will help them to move forward.
You become a thinking partner, helping your student find their own ways of approaching their problem. You give ownership to them. You’ll help your student sift through the thinking clutter that may be getting in the way and enhance their 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 their 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 their lens.
- Use quality questioning techniques to help them explore. Remember, your task is to help them dig deeper, not to direct them 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 their 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 them in a new way — a double benefit!