Academic advisers come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some advisers are counselors, while others have not had any training in a helping field. Despite the fact that advisers are not therapists, they work with students who are in transitional stages, and they assist students making major life decisions (Pope, Reynolds, & Mueller, 2004). Therefore, it can be helpful for all academic advisers to have a basic understanding of counseling skills when helping students make decisions and adjust to new situations. Pope et al. state that even when student affairs professionals are not prepared to be counselors, they must know how to respond to the emotional needs and concerns of students. This does not suggest that advisers need to, or should, act as therapists.
Having some basic understanding of counseling skills is helpful for anyone who works with people. Basic counseling skills are helpful in understanding other people's points of view. This can also help a person feel understood and come away from the experience with a more positive feeling.
Another reason academic advisers should understand fundamental counseling skills is because academic advisers interact with students in crisis. Even when a counseling center is available, some students in distress will seek their academic advisers for assistance either because they are familiar with the advisers or because they do not understand the distinction between academic adviser and counselor. Academic advisers who are familiar with counseling basics tend to be able to handle such situations in a calm manner and in a way that helps students in need the most.
This paper introduces the basics of counseling for academic advisers without counseling backgrounds. Included in this paper is information intended to improve the comfort level of non-counselor academic advisers working with students in crisis who may want to harm themselves. As this paper is only an introduction to counseling, advisers who wish more in-depth knowledge of the counseling field should seek information by reviewing relevant literature, discussing issues with counseling professionals, and/or undertaking related course work.
Basic Counseling Skills
There are many theories of counseling with varying perspectives on how to approach the counseling relationship. However, there are some skills that are basic to all counseling theories (Neukrug, 2003). For the purposes of this paper, only a few of the common counseling skills will be addressed. The following were selected because of their usefulness to anyone who works with people.
Rapport building is the foundation of the counseling relationship. Good rapport between the counselor and student is often a prerequisite for a student to open up to a counselor. According to Cormier and Hackney (1993), rapport is the psychological climate between the counselor and the student (p. 22). Positive rapport includes the establishment of trust, respect, and a feeling of comfort. Cormier and Hackney go on to explain that good rapport sets the foundation for a positive counseling relationship and psychological growth. Many elements comprise a positive rapport, including the interest the counselor takes in the student and the feel portrayed by the counselor's office.
Listening involves more than simply hearing what the student is saying. It involves giving your undivided attention and showing the student that you are interested. The whole body of a listener should tell the student that he or she is completely engaged in the conversation. According to Kottler and Kottler (2000), the appearance of attentiveness to what students are saying is the base skill necessary for building rapport.
Neukrug (2003) lists the characteristics of a good listener:
(1) talks minimally, (2) concentrates on what is being said, (3) does not interrupt, (4) does not give advice, (5) gives and does not expect to get, (6) accurately hears the content of what the helpee is saying, (7) accurately hears the feelings of what the helpee is saying, (8) is able to communicate to the helpee that he or she has been heard ... (9) asks clarifying questions ... and (10) does not ask other kinds of questions. (p 118)
Being a good listener takes practice. It can be helpful to clear your mind of distractions before meeting with a student.
Reflection is restating in your own words what the student has said. Kanel (2007) defines reflection as a statement that reflects the affective part or emotional tone of the client's message ... (p. 76). One goal of reflection is to demonstrate to the student that you heard and understood what he or she said. Another goal of reflection is to provide an opportunity to verify that you are correctly interpreting what the student meant.
Many students will feel a great sense of relief after they feel understood. Once students believe you are listening and understanding what they are feeling, it is easier to help them find solutions to their own problems. Below is an example of reflection as it is used in an advising session:
Student: I can't stand talking to my father anymore. He keeps pushing me to pick a major in business, because he thinks that I will make a lot of money. I don't want to upset him, but I don't know if I want business. All this pressure to choose a major and a job makes me not even want to think about it. I've just started college; how do I know what I want to be doing for the rest of my life?
Academic adviser: What I'm hearing is that you want to explore your options but the pressure you feel to please your father and the pressure to pick a career so early in your college career is causing you to want to avoid exploring majors.
Student (letting out a sigh of relief): Yes.
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in others' shoes and view the world from their perspective. Kottler and Kottler (2000) explain empathy by stating you are able to get inside someone else's skin to the point that you can sense what he or she is going through (p. 21). Empathy helps counselors understand why students feel the way they do. We are better able to help students whose emotions we understand. Like other counseling skills, empathy does not come naturally to most people. It is very difficult to leave behind our own perceptions and see the world through someone else's eyes. However, Neukrug (2003) states that empathy is one of the most important skills for counselors to develop. With practice, he reassures us, empathy will come more naturally.
The Office Environment
The look and feel of your office can have some significant effects on the development of positive rapport with your students. Consider what your office says to students. Is it an inviting place to be? Is there anything about it that might be less than welcoming to a certain segment of the student population? Whether you are helping a student in a crisis or helping a student select courses for the next semester, the feel of your office can impact the relationship you will form with the student. Even if you are unable to change your office or you do not wish to change it, it may be helpful to examine the effects of your office layout and effects of materials displayed in your office.
As much as possible, an office should be relatively uncluttered, free of distractions, and clear of other students' records (Neukrug, 2003). Also consider the arrangement of your office. Does the arrangement give you and the student each enough personal space to feel comfortable (keeping in mind that different cultures have different customs regarding personal space)? Is there a desk between you and the student? A desk can act as a barrier. Many students view the person on the other side of the desk as the authority who gives the answer, rather than the person with whom to discuss potential solutions.
Consider books and other materials in your office. Would they offend someone? Consider how the most conservative and most liberal students would react to the materials in your office (Neukrug, 2003). Of course, it may be impossible to avoid offending everyone. There may also be times when you decide that it is more important to ensure the comfort of a particular segment of the population than try to avoid offending another. However, it is important to be cognizant of the effects the material may have on student comfort.
Students in Crisis
If you are working with a student in crisis, you must remain calm. If you panic, it will only make the situation worse. While it may be impossible to eliminate all feelings of panic, going into the situation with a plan will help you remain calm enough to help the student.
If you are concerned that a student may be suicidal, ask the student if he or she has ever considered suicide. Some people are afraid to ask students if they are having any thoughts of harming themselves for fear that the question may lead them to consider doing so. However, asking the question will not cause people to want to kill themselves (James, 2008); not asking the question may mean missing the opportunity to prevent a suicide. Kanel (2007) states that talking about suicide is the only way to eliminate suicidal thoughts and that it is often a relief for a potentially suicidal person to talk about it with an understanding person.
If the student tells you that he or she has considered suicide, you need to get more information. Ask how often the student thinks about suicide and if he or she has a plan to commit suicide. The more detailed the plan, the more likely that the student will attempt suicide. Also, the more access the person has to the materials in the plan, the more likely the student may commit suicide. Consider the lethality of a student's suicide plan. Some suicidal plans are much more likely to result in death than others (McVey-Noble, Khemlani-Patel, & Neziroglu, 2006).
Many colleges have professional counselors trained to work with students in crisis. If you are at a campus that has crisis counselors, it is important to involve a crisis counselor when working with a student who is experiencing any potentially life-threatening distress. Let the student know that you care about him or her and that is the reason why you want to involve someone who is better able to help. If the student must go to the counseling office, take him or her there. Potentially suicidal students should never be left alone.
If your campus has a counseling center, it is helpful to get to know the staff and the office procedures prior to referring students. You will be more comfortable asking for help from individuals with whom you are already familiar. In addition, when you are comfortable with the counseling staff, the student you are helping will feel more comfortable. Also, the counseling office can be a helpful place to turn when you need additional input to assist students.
Many smaller colleges do not have counseling offices. If your campus does not have a counseling office, you may need to take a more active approach to help a student experiencing a crisis. If you are concerned the student may commit suicide, when possible, you can try to convince the student to have a relative or close friend, who is a responsible adult, pick him or her up. The responsible adult can then take the student to a qualified therapist or to the emergency room for an assessment. The student should wait with you or another staff member until the responsible adult arrives. If it is not possible for a responsible adult to pick up the student, you may need to contact the local police to make sure the person does not endanger himself or herself. Decisions such as these should not be made in isolation. It is best to involve a supervisor or other staff member with a counseling background.
While academic advisers are not always counselors, they are often called on to help students through transitional life stages and to deal with serious emotional situations. Therefore, advisers who have a basic understanding of counseling principles can help students more effectively. In addition, basic counseling skills are helpful for anyone working with people, because they allow another's viewpoint to be more easily understood. While counseling skills take practice to develop, they are essential to effective advising.
This paper provided a brief overview of counseling skills that are useful to academic advisers. Advisers who wish to gain a more thorough understanding of the counseling field are encouraged to research the field through literature reviews, consultation with counseling professionals, and/or course work.