5 Easy Ways to Survive Difficult Conversations with Students

February 20, 2015 heatherdunn

As a financial aid professional, it is your happy duty to send out a lot of good news about students’ financial aid status. Unfortunately, that also means it is your job to let students know when the news is not so happy, such as when they don’t quality for financial aid, their funding falls through, or they miss a deadline that disqualifies them.

Unfortunately, if you do not take the time to learn to approach such subjects delicately, you may unintentionally make students feel worse. The following five tips, if incorporated into your conversational arsenal, will help you and your students survive a difficult financial aid conversation with more solutions and fewer bruised feelings.

1. Do Not Sugarcoat the Facts

When humans feel for other humans, they naturally cast about for a silver lining. But sometimes there is no silver lining, and pretending that there is only hurts that person more. When a student finds out they cannot attend college this year or that they’ll have to work twice as many hours to put themselves through, you’re unlikely to show them a bright side. Respect their dignity by not pretending.

2. Share the News as Soon as Possible

As Forbes points out, bad news doesn’t gets better with time. In fact, delaying the inevitable only winnows down the student’s remaining choices. Even if their financial aid dreams aren’t going to work out the way a student thought, you can still give their remaining options the best chance of happening by alerting the student right away.

3. Treat Your Students as Partners

Although a distinct power dynamic exists between you and the students you serve, you are actually partners in education, as demonstrated by our open letter to students. Treat them as such by being willing to work through tough stuff with them. Even though you can’t create that silver lining out of thin air, you can help students come up with solutions to their problems.

[Tweet “I pledge to be my students’ partner in financial aid.”]

4. Deliver Bad News with Compassion

Delivering bad news may be another task on your to-do list, but to students it can feel like a death knell. Don’t rush them. Instead, allow the student to voice their concerns, ask questions, be scared or even cry. They may need to process, and you can help them do it.

5. Open a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

This tip goes hand in hand with no. 3, because it encourages you, the financial aid professional, to treat the student as an equal. The author of this article tells a story about learning he would not receive assistance for his doctorate, and the different approaches that were taken by two financial aid officers. One of the counselors moved on immediately, and the other sat down to help him figure it out. The lesson? Instead of handing down a sentence or a mandate and moving on, encourage a conversation. In addition to helping the student work through feelings and find options, you may learn something you can use to help other students later.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but there are better and worse ways to do it. Use these tips next time you have to have a tough conversation.


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