Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class on student affairs administration 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.
Advisers typically spend much of the workday in their individual offices meeting with students. These meetings are incredible opportunities to learn about students and their stories, challenge them to devise creative solutions to issues they are facing, and support them with a wealth of personal and professional experience and knowledge. Students, however, are unsure what to expect from advising sessions and, thus, often feel anxious when they first walk into their advisers' offices. If advisers want to encourage their students to share personal stories, hopes, and dreams for the future, they should first take steps to ensure that students feel comfortable. An important part of creating a safe and comfortable environment involves making the adviser's physical space warm and inviting to students. In fact, establishing this type of environment is the cornerstone of the Disarm phase of Appreciative Advising (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008).
As defined by Bloom, Hutson, and He, Appreciative Advising is the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their education experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials (Appreciative Advising, n.d., ¶ 2). The six-phase model is structured to guide a student through a meaningful adviser-facilitated conversation and then help the student realize and define aspirations and develop a course of action to accomplish his or her goals. The first phase of Appreciative Advising, the Disarm phase, focuses on advising professionals intentionally establishing a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere to make a positive first impression on the student (Bloom et al., 2008). The purpose of this article is to share research findings that will assist advising professionals to disarm students by creating a welcoming environment.
Disarm Phase Overview
To disarm is to divest or relieve of hostility, etc.; win the affection or approval of; charm (Dictionary.com, 2009). The Disarm phase of Appreciative Advising has three main components: verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and the environment. Examples of verbal communication include calling students by name and engaging in unrelated small talk to build rapport, whereas nonverbal communication involves smiling at the student, presenting a relaxed body posture, and maintaining appropriate eye contact. The third component of the Disarm phase, the office environment, is often overlooked. Advisers should design their environment (or office) to reflect their personalities and make students feel comfortable when spending time in that space. Productivity specialist, Monica Ricci (n.d.), explains:
When you feel good in a room, you automatically attach a positive emotion to the people associated with that room; therefore, when clients [or students] like your space and feel good in your office environment, they also attach a positive feeling to you. (¶ 2)
Tips for Disarming Your Office
An adviser can make a strong first impression if the student experiences a positive feeling in the first few moments within the office. This positive feeling can help an adviser establish a safe connection with students who then feel comfortable opening up about their hopes, fears, and dreams. Below are several proven recommendations to create a welcoming office environment for students.
Eliminate Clutter and Other Minor Distractions
When preparing for meetings with students, advisers should clear their desks of all other files and paperwork. A cluttered desk can make a negative first impression, expressing disorganization and/or leading students to perceive that the adviser's focus is not solely on them during the meeting.
Bloom et al. (2008) discuss the importance of displaying family photos to show students that advisers are more than just student/academic affairs professionals and have lives outside of the office. However, the photos should not be distracting. Heydlauff (2007) recommends limiting family pictures to a small grouping or a few pictures in one frame.
Also consider the look and feel of the office walls. Depending on the color and any artwork displayed, a student may or may not be comfortable in the office space. If advisers have permission to paint office walls, Heydlauff (2007) recommends a soft terra cotta or earth tone colors, which are conducive to building good relationships with clients [or students] (p. 2).
Even if the office walls are white, artwork can establish a good balance for the office environment and invoke an inviting feeling for students (Ricci, n.d., ¶ 4). Heydlauff (2007) suggests that hanging motivational artwork and posters framed in gold and silver energize success, teamwork, and a winning attitude (p. 1). Too much artwork, however, can make the office look messy and cluttered. Ricci (n.d.) advises that smaller pieces of artwork or posters should be grouped together on one wall to create a unique art collage, whereas larger pieces should hang on walls by themselves. The same rules apply to displaying awards. Select just a few that are meaningful and group them in a smaller cluster (Ricci, n.d., ¶ 7).
Heydlauff (2007) and Ricci (n.d.) both claim that plants and colorful flowers exude a great sense of energy for any environment. Plants provide a pop of color and bring life into the office. Be sure to take good care of living plants in your office; dying plants can give off a negative vibe to people when first entering a room (Ricci, ¶ 5).
The first impression a student receives actually begins when he or she first enters the main waiting room. Because one cannot decorate the waiting room in a personal way, all members of the office can work together to create a nice environment for students by investing in comfortable furniture. Big, cozy sets of furniture can help students relax as they wait for a meeting (Ricci, n.d.).
Ideally students will feel at ease when they enter an individual advising office, but it is important to consider that those meetings with students are typically to discuss business or resolve a problem. To set a more serious tone, therefore, advisers' office furniture should be less comfortable than what is in the waiting area (Ricci, n.d.).
If personal office space allows, advisers can set up a small table with two chairs positioned away from the work desk and thus foster better interaction with students. Ricci (n.d.) explains, A big desk between you and your client [student] may not create a feeling of trust, whereas meeting around a smaller table would provide a more intimate feel with the client [student] (¶ 9). Heydlauff (2007) adds that one should have meetings with students at a round table. Round or oval tables are conducive for negotiating ..., problem solving, and conducting productive meetings because there is a feeling of equality, for no one person appears to be in a power position (p. 2). Advisers can convey they are working together in partnership with students by meeting with students at round tables.
A welcoming and comfortable office produces an enjoyable experience for both advisers and students (Ricci, n.d.). By purposefully creating a safe and vibrant work space, academic advisers help to set a positive tone for their meetings with visitors. Because an office environment is a reflection of one's personal characteristics and attitude, a student will develop a first impression of the adviser based not only on what is said but also on what the office expresses. So what impression is your office making?