There are many reasons you might need to have a difficult conversation with your college student, and the middle or end of the year is often a time when that conversation needs to happen. It might have to do with a poor semester academically, poor social decisions, financial issues, or many other possible situations. Whatever the topic, chances are that you probably dread the conversation. It’s important, it’s necessary, but you know that there are so many ways that it could go badly.
There is no getting around the fact that the conversation is probably going to be uncomfortable, but there are a few things that you can do to help it go more smoothly and to help both you and your student be more comfortable with the outcome. Before you sit down to have that tough conversation with your student, consider a few things.
What exactly is the problem?
Define the problem as specifically as you can. The more focused you can be the better. It’s far too easy to think in vague terms and never really pinpoint the exact problem. If your student didn’t do well last semester, is the problem their grades, their behavior, their social life, their choice of friends or classes? Are you worried about losing scholarship money, being dismissed, taking extra time to complete a degree, or potential graduate school? Each of these conversations will be different. Know what it is that you need to talk about.
Whose problem is this?
Is this your problem or your student’s problem? This is an important distinction. Think carefully about this before you talk. If it is your student’s problem, do they need to take ownership of it? That will be a different conversation than something that you need to work out together. Are you going to be the leader in the solution or will you play a supporting role? (Reminder, the supporting/coaching role may be even more difficult than taking the lead.)
Plan – but don’t plan.
Yes, this is a contradiction. You need to do some serious planning for your conversation. Know what you need to talk about and how you will approach it. But don’t plan the solution. If you already know the answer to your problem, then you don’t need the conversation. You simply need to tell your student what to do (and that usually doesn’t go very well.) Keep an open mind and listen to what your student brings to the conversation. They may have ideas you haven’t even considered.
What’s your purpose?
This is related to your planning. Why is this conversation taking place? While you shouldn’t plan for the solution, you can think about the general outcome you hope for. This is different. Do you need to find a solution right away? Do you just want to plant seeds for thought? Do you need your student to do something or do you need information to do something? Think about why this conversation is important right now. What do you hope to walk away with?
Own your feelings and your perspective.
Approach the conversation from your own perspective. Use “I” statements. “I feel disappointed when I hear that you have failed a course.” “I’m worried about the amount of money on your credit card bill because it’s accumulating a lot of interest.” Don’t preach or accuse or talk to your student about their behavior, talk about your feelings and reactions. Don’t tell your student they are immature or lazy or inconsiderate, or any number of things, tell them how you feel about what you know. If you own your reactions, it will help your student to own theirs.
Think about what you need to say.
Is there anything that you feel must be said in this conversation? Is there a bottom line or a piece of information that must be shared? If so, plan for it. Think about how you will bring it up. Practice it. If you are going to listen carefully to what your student has to say, you can’t be sure where the conversation is going to go. If there is something that you feel must be said, plan how to make that happen.
Help your student participate in the conversation.
Your student may not be sure what to expect. Ask the kinds of questions that invite an open response from your student. Be willing to really listen to what they have to say. Ask for clarification if anything isn’t clear. Be sure your student knows that you want to hear what they have to say. If you’ve never had this kind of conversation before, your student may need some help knowing how to be part of the process.
Know your limits.
There are a number of limits that you might need to consider. What are the limits of this conversation? Try to make sure that both you and your student have enough time for this talk to be meaningful. Are there limits to any decision? Are you willing to try whatever your student might suggest? Is there a time limit for finding a solution? Be clear about how open you are to potential solutions.
Difficult conversations are just that – difficult. But difficult conversations can be valuable experiences for both you and your student. Perhaps you’ll find a solution to your problem, or perhaps it will need more exploration, but both you and your student may find that the experience of working together to find the solution is the most important part of the process.