A Rogerian Approach to Academic Advising: Building Common Ground between Advisers and Students When Conflict Exists

Jessica Newcomb
Texas A&M University

Volume: 11
Article first published online: May 6, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161503

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, Carl Rogers, Rogerian, rhetoric, argument, conflict, conflict resolution

When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to reperceive my world and go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. (Rogers, 1980, p. 12–13)

Suppose my grudging tolerance of your separate world view became a full acceptance of you and your right to have such a view. Suppose that instead of shutting out the realities of others as absurd or dangerous or heretical or stupid, I was willing to explore and learn about those realities? Suppose you were willing to do the same. What would be the social result? (Rogers, 1980, p. 105)

In the typical style of argument that pervades American culture, emphasis is placed on winning a disagreement, but this approach is counterproductive in academic advising situations that challenge students' strongly held opinions, belief systems, or ways of thinking (Wood, 2006, p. 180). In academic advising, the interaction with students is not labeled as argument; nevertheless, points of contention can exist, and advisers should not only explain their positions and the reasoning that supports advice but also seek to understand students' perspectives. Advisers' and students' backgrounds, values, and opinions often differ, as one would expect with any diverse group of people. These factors influence the way each individual thinks about issues and approaches decisions, so when advisers prompt students to manage the decision-making process based on their own biases or modes of thinking, they may meet resistance. It is imperative that an adviser employ another approach if disagreement surfaces during an advising session. Although it is challenging to show how an opposing position is valid, a Rogerian approach to academic advising emphasizes points of agreement. In order to explain the application of Rogers' ideas to academic advising, a discussion of his therapeutic work and how other scholars have expanded upon it is necessary.

Carl Rogers was a psychotherapist known for his therapeutic technique, called non-directive, because he viewed the therapist's role as one of support for the client who should direct progress. He sought independence for his clients, which would not be attainable if they remained dependent on a therapist. He promoted a specific technique called reflection, which is the mirroring of emotions communicated by the client in order to actively illustrate listening and understanding. Additionally, the therapist shows the client what it is that he or she is communicating (Boeree, 2006), so the technique is a source of support and nonjudgmental feedback. In A Way of Being, Rogers (1980) describes a philosophy in which dialogue is valued over debate. The philosophy is based on what he called the “hypothesis of multiple realities,” which supports the acceptance of multiple perspectives rather than the promotion of a single view (Rogers, 1980, p. 102). With this approach, advisers can guide students away from poor decisions while supporting their contribution, thus promoting self-confidence and acceptance of responsibility. Because following every word an adviser says does not guarantee that a student will be able to successfully navigate graduate school or the professional world, advisers seek to help students become effective decision makers.

Anatol Rapoport, a game theorist and conflict and peace studies scholar, was also an early developer of social network analysis and expanded on Rogers' ideas, although he was more concerned with political than psychological issues. After establishing trust during a conversation by using Rogers' methods, the next step each party takes is to identify parameters in which the opposing view is valid. Identifying examples that support a divergent viewpoint validates the message that one is more invested in the discussion than in winning a debate (Brent, 1991). Essentially, Rapoport's goal for rhetoric is to achieve social cooperation, and in Fights, Games and Debates (1960), he bases some of his claims on Rogers' technique of non-directive or permissive therapy by defining argument as persuasion and suggesting that removing perceived threats is one way to persuade (as cited in Thorne, 2003, para. 7). Young, Becker, and Pike explained in Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (1970) that Rapoport felt “... out of a need to preserve the stability of his image, a person will refuse to consider alternatives that he feels are threatening ...” and, therefore, influencing a person's receptiveness “... depends on eliminating this sense of threat” (as cited in Thorne, 2003, para. 8). Advising with this focus will serve to relax students who feel that their ideas are threatened by an authority figure and will validate students' positions while asking them to thoughtfully consider advice from experienced and knowledgeable advisers. This approach does not ask students to blindly accept authority or to instantly change long-held belief systems. Instead, it is a tool that can guide students during the transitory period that accompanies the collegiate experience. Advisers do not seek to recruit students as followers; instead, advisers desire to foster the skills students need to succeed in college and during post-graduation endeavors.

Young et al. (1970) introduced Rogerian rhetoric by claiming that traditional rhetoric promotes an adversarial relationship in which the speaker tries to weaken the audience's resistance to claims. This rhetoric may work when an audience has a dispassionate interest in a discussion, but in comparison, an audience will likely hold more rigidly to its beliefs in emotionally saturated discussions. Because focusing on similarities rather than differences creates a context for continued communication that is mutually beneficial (Brent, n.d.), I suggest that advisers shape the advising session around Rogerian principles when conflict exists. These steps were adapted from Young, Becker, and Pike's approach to writing a Rogerian argument, as explained in Wood's (2006) Essentials of Argument:

  1. If conflict exists, first endeavor to listen in a nonjudgmental manner without offering advice or criticism and build common ground by asking questions that reflect the information the student offers.
  2. Restate the student's position in a nonjudgmental way while emphasizing common concerns such as successful completion of course work, balancing academics with employment and co-curricular activities, and achievement of personal goals.
  3. Identify situations where the student's position could be valid. The adviser could acknowledge that the student's proposed course of action would be appropriate if certain factors were true. For example, if the student had earned a 'C' or better in a math course during the previous semester, the adviser would have supported the student taking a math course this semester.
  4. Identify situations where the adviser's position could be valid. Following the same example, if a student failed a math course during the previous semester and is now close to falling below a 2.0 cumulative grade-point average, the adviser can emphasize the consequences of another poor grade in the current semester. In this case, the adviser would recommend that the student take a semester off from math and replace it with a course that typically has a higher class average.
  5. Develop/discuss an agreeable solution or action plan. State how the student's position would benefit from adopting elements of the adviser's position. Describe how resulting consequences differ in each scenario. For example, if the student chooses to take a course with a consistently high class average other than math, he may be able to achieve the cumulative [grade-point average] requirement for change of major into the student's desired major. If the student chooses to take math and does poorly, the student may be placed on probation, asked to submit an academic appeal to continue with the department, or asked to leave the institution. (p. 185)

Young et al. (1970) state four goals that are met with this strategy, and I have applied them to academic advising. By following these steps, (a) students know that they have been understood, (b) students understand that they share similar goals and attitudes with advisers, (c) advisers show how students' positions are valid in certain contexts and under certain situations, and (d) advisers propose solutions to which both parties can agree (Wood, 2006, p. 184). The best solution may not be a combination of what both parties want; but in order for students to take ownership of their actions, their perspectives must be part of the decision-making process.

One issue to consider with a Rogerian approach to advising is that applying Rogers' ideas to persuasion may be antithetical to Rogerian theory (Thorne, 2003, para. 9), because his goal was to minimize strategy and argument. According to Nathaniel Teich in Conversation with Carl Rogers, Rogers insisted “the use of his ideas 'for the purpose of ... changing the other person's mind' is ... 'a perversion of my thinking'” (as cited in Thorne, 2003, para. 10). So, can persuasion and argument be separated in the context of academic advising? I propose that the answer is yes, if advisers focus the initiation of the technique on inquiry and ultimately allow students to make their own choices. Advisers do not need students to follow their advice to be right, i.e., to have the correct answer, so being right in the sense of a debate or argument is not necessary or relevant. Argument based on inquiry holds many of the same qualities as Rogerian argument, as it is more “process-oriented than product-oriented ... and places more value on truth seeking rather than on being able to defend a position well ...” (Thorne, 2003, para. 15) and requires a high level of involvement from students. Through this method, advisers can emphasize dialogue and give immediate positive feedback. Additionally, in circumstances when positive feedback is not merited, this method allows advisers to provide timely guidance and direction. As Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is currently applied as an individual development tool, it is timely to consider how inquiry plays a part in the advising session. Bloom (2002) writes, “... [O]ne of the primary tools [advisers] have for empowering students is asking questions” (p. 1). While AI might focus on asking only positive, affirmative questions, a Rogerian approach could be used when conflict exists in an advising session.

Academic advising is intended to serve students' varied needs, and, certainly, conflict that escalates into a standoff is not productive to this end. “The most important feature of a Rogerian [approach] is listening empathetically and nonjudgmentally” (Wood, 2006, p. 184). To think in a nonjudgmental manner is not to always support whatever a student does or says but to withhold scrutiny until the student has explained his or her position. Advisers should allow students to make their own choices and promote personal responsibility in the decision-making process. Advisers sometimes evaluate students' situations and offer advice before understanding how they would like to approach the current situation or usually approach similar situations. Advisers should understand how each student would like to meet academic or personal goals and how advice might help to reach achievement and fulfillment. “... [S]tudents will likely respond more positively to [advisers] if they know that they will be treated as someone with outstanding potential instead of just another problem child” (Bloom, 2002, p. 2). Rogerian listening helps the adviser show a sympathetic understanding of the student's position before asking the student to consider an alternate course of action. Thus, the adviser encourages a continued and open exchange of ideas with the student.


Bloom, J. L., & Martin, N. A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4(3). Retrieved from http://www.psu.edu/dus/mentor/020829jb.htm

Boeree, C. G. (2006). Personality theories. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/rogers.html

Brent, D. (n.d.). Rogerian rhetoric. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent/art/rogrhet.html

Brent, D. (1991). Young, Becker and Pike's “Rogerian” rhetoric: A twenty-year reassessment. College English, 53(4), 452–66. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/378020

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Thorne, S. F. (2003). Rogerian rhetoric as negotiation: Does its dependence on game theory pose ethical problems? Reconstruction, 3(1). Retrieved February 12, 2009, from http://reconstruction.eserver.org/031/thorne.htm

Young, R. E., Becker, A. L., & Pike, K. L. (1970). Rhetoric: Discovery and change. New York: Harcourt.

Wood, N. S. (2006). Essentials of argument. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

About the Author(s)

Jessica Newcomb is a senior academic adviser at Texas A&M University. She can be reached at Jessica@gap.tamu.edu.