Disarming the Armed: Appreciatively Advising Unhappy Students

Erin Palmer
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: June 17, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161509

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, appreciative advising, unhappy students

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

Students visit their advisers for a variety of reasons: registering for classes, changing a major, and seeking general academic and/or personal advice. Many advisers would like to be part of their students' support network to help them achieve success in their academic and co-curricular pursuits. On the other hand, advisers' duties also include informing students about institutional academic policies, and sometimes they have to be the bearers of bad news. Thus, some students view their advisers as impediments to their graduation. Because of this, advisers may encounter students who are unhappy about a policy issue, disturbed by a run-in they had with a professor or other campus official, or disgruntled by the mere notion that they have to meet with an adviser at all. The purpose of this article is to share techniques from the Appreciative Advising model and encourage advisers to adapt them when working with unhappy students to address their issues and come up with creative solutions.

Appreciative Advising Overview

Appreciative Advising is an advising model that is focused on helping students make the most of their college careers (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). It emphasizes the need for advisers to build trusting relationships with students in order to uncover their strengths, skills, and dreams. The six phases that comprise Appreciative Advising are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom et al., 2008).

Adapting Appreciative Advising for Unhappy Students

Advisers often serve as catchall customer-service representatives of the universities they serve. Unhappy or angry students may enter an adviser's office defensively. While some perceive Appreciative Advising as a great idealistic model for optimizing students' educational experiences, unhappy students may not be receptive to the typical types of positive, open-ended questions that form the centerpiece of Appreciative Advising. Adapting the phases of Appreciative Advising to better accommodate unhappy students may more thoroughly assist an adviser in understanding the students' situation. Literature from the customer-service realm helps to explain how employees can effectively deal with angry customers (Gallo, 2007).


If the adviser knows ahead of time that an unhappy student is coming to the office, the adviser should do some homework, if appropriate, beforehand. For example, the adviser should obtain the student's file, get out the appropriate policy manual, and mentally prepare to deal with the unhappy student. If the adviser anticipates making referrals, he or she should locate the proper contact information before the student arrives.

Whether or not the adviser knows ahead of time that the student is unhappy, it is important to offer a warm greeting. If the student is visibly upset, the adviser should acknowledge that something appears to be wrong to validate the student's concern (Gallo, 2007).


In the traditional Appreciative Advising methodology, the Discover phase involves trying to discover a student's skills and strengths. However, when a student is upset, the focus of the Discover phase switches to learning about the nature of the student's complaint. To engage the student and attempt to immediately address his or her concern, the adviser makes an effort to both validate the advisee's feelings and hear the story. A possible way to phrase this approach would be, “You are obviously upset about something. Please explain what has happened.” Letting students know that discussing their situations with an adviser can aid them in solving difficulties and also help other students avoid similar problems in the future (Gallo, 2007).


Once advisers have discovered what the problems are, they can use Dream phase questions to begin to uncover what remedy the student is seeking. An example of a Dream phase question is, “What would be the perfect solution to the problem that you are facing?” Another question might be, “What can I do to help you resolve this situation?” This marks a shift from the student being a victim of the situation to beginning to take responsibility for finding an appropriate solution.


Once the adviser knows the student's ideal solution to the issue, they both can begin brainstorming about other options. A Design phase question might be, “Knowing that there is often more than one right answer to a problem, what other solutions might there be to this situation?” This is also an opportunity for the adviser to educate the student on appropriate university policies and ways to navigate the culture of the institution.

The adviser should take care not to send the student on a wild goose chase across campus to execute the plan they developed together. The student has gone through an emotional event, and the adviser needs to make every effort to eliminate further student frustrations (Gallo, 2007).


As occurs in the traditional Appreciative Advising model, the unhappy student is charged with executing the developed plan during the Deliver phase. With a developed plan, the student is hopefully calmer and ready to be coached on explaining the problem to other appropriate offices and/or constituencies on campus. This is a real opportunity to educate students about taking responsibility for their roles in the issue and preparing to appropriately ask for help from others to resolve the problem. Here, students have an active voice in solving their problems, develop a sense of ownership, and begin to understand the process that they must go through.

Don't Settle

In this stage, students can transform their dilemmas into educational experiences for others. Here students can reflect on their responsibility for the situation, and more importantly, consider how they can prevent this problem from happening in the future. This allows the adviser to help the student reframe the circumstance from a “win-lose” situation to a “win-learn” opportunity (Jones, 1999). This stage also can be reframed to allow the adviser to exceed the student's expectations for resolving the situation. Hopefully, this will help the session end on a positive note and ensure that the student will come back to the adviser to address any problems he or she may have in the future (Money Instructor, 2006).


Meeting with unhappy students is an unfortunate yet seemingly common occurrence for many academic advisers. While the traditional Appreciative Advising model may not appeal to these students because of the positive, open-ended focus, advisers can easily adapt the phases to meet the needs of unhappy or upset students. Merging the Appreciative Advising model with lessons from business literature on dealing with angry customers provides a flexible framework for advisers and students to co-develop solutions to students' problems. It is important in these situations to regard students as individuals instead of expecting them to conform to steps in a prescribed model. Using the above adaptations to work through students' issues can be a valuable experience for both the adviser and the student, hopefully leading to further conversations and dialogue about the rest of each student's academic career.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Gallo, C. (2007, June 20). Dealing with angry customers. Business Week. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jun2007/sb20070620_974061.htm?campaign_id=rss_daily

Jones, D. (1999). Seeing the ordinary as extraordinary. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from http://www.dewittjones.com/html/seeing_the_ordinary.shtml

Money Instructor. (2006). Customer service: Dealing with angry customers. Retrieved March 24, 2009, from http://www.moneyinstructor.com/art/angrycustomer.asp

About the Author(s)

Erin Palmer is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She is also a graduate assistant for the university's student government office. She can be reached at palmeres@mailbox.sc.edu.