If you are a fellow parent, borrow the phrases that professors use with their students, many of whom are the same age as our high school or college-age children, to expand those positive communication opportunities:
1. “I am concerned about…”
“I” versus “you” statements are a fundamental part of my interpersonal communication teaching. I use it daily with students to “own” my feelings about their happenings, rather than place blame. So, instead of saying, “You’re grade is really tanking in this class”, I will say, “I’m concerned about where your grade stands right now. Let’s take a closer look.”
2. “This is as difficult to say as I’m sure it will be to hear…”
Sometimes, I have to deliver bad news. Example? A plagiarized speech outline means harsh consequences for the student. I tell him/her, with sincerity, that confronting this issue isn’t easy on my end either. I may also say “This is uncomfortable for me to discuss…” It’s my way of showing empathy in light of a negative situation.
3. “What is the result you’re looking for?”
I ask this primarily when a student is stuck with research for a paper or flow of speech content. Encouraging students to think through the end result can often reconnect them with the path they need to follow.
4. “It’s my job to see the bigger picture.”
Students have as many life crises as there are days in school. Often, their first response is to sink under and give up. However, I know that we can employ Plan A-F before moving to the worst case scenario of dropping the class or failing. I tell students outright that I need to look beyond their crisis to help them not let one more thing go downhill.
5. “Instead of excuses, let’s focus on solving the problem.”
Dead grandmothers, broken printers, Ebola virus… profs have heard every excuse known to man, woman, caveman, etc. I tell students that I care about their lives, I care about their problems, but pondering “the reasons why” simply don’t matter in time-sensitive situations, such as a finite college term. I’m focused on solutions.
6. “Own your excellence.”
Public speaking is such a feared activity that students almost don’t know what to do with themselves when they overcome their apprehension and find their voice. They fret over subsequent speeches like it was the first one. Saying, “You’re a wonderful speaker!” is great; encouraging students to embody greatness for themselves is self-empowerment.
7. “The way that you _____________________ was impressive.”
I’ve learned that meaningful praise isn’t personal—the student should never feel as if they are seeking my approval or trying to get me to like something. I attempt to focus on mastery of the task i.e., “The way that you used that quote in your introduction was impressive and engaged your audience” as opposed to “I liked that quote you used.”
8. “I am mortified/frustrated/angry that you…”
Back to owning my feelings: Two students passed notes while seated right next to me during a night of student speeches. Anger sailed through my entire body; I wanted to hurl many “you” statements: “You were so disrespectful, not only to me, but to that speaker.” But “you” puts others on immediate mental defense.
On our break, I knelt down next to them, made direct eye contact, and said, “I’m mortified that you would pass notes during speeches with me sitting right next to you. Not only was it disrespectful to me, but to the speaker. Please stop immediately.” Both were taken aback by my directness and e-mailed apologies to me after class.
9. “Tell me more about…”
Students often run their presentation/project topics by me: “I want to do my speech on education.” I probe further with leading questions: “Tell me more about what you want your audience to know about education.
What aspect of education are you thinking about? What interests you about this topic?” When the student “talks out” his/her ideas, we can hone in on a focused solution and better grasp the next steps.
10. “I would have loved to know about this earlier…”
I am horrible at being reactive, but I have to flex those muscles all the time in my job. Students “needed” a certain grade to transfer to another program or they miss class for weeks due to a family emergency that they never disclosed.
I try to train students that telling me about their needs and situations early means we have time and room to craft proactive solutions.
11. “Here are the reasons why I can/can’t…”
My students are adults. Alterations to assignments or the classroom impact all of us; I strive for open discussion and mutual agreement of potential solutions. Sometimes, students have “interesting” ideas (“Let’s just trash the final altogether!” or “Can you give us extra credit for that?”). I owe it to students to not just say “No” or “Yes”, but to give rationale about my decision and background on my thought process.
I use this phrase more than any other because the Italian etiology is the word “brave”, and it has more teeth than “awesome.” Communicating well, either in writing, and especially in speaking, requires such bravery.
When I write it at the end of papers/outlines, sometimes I use it twice, “Bravo, bravo to you!” When students complete a speech, I emphasize the word by clapping over my head.
Our history with our kids, personal triggers, and just sheer “you’ve hit my last nerve” impatience can make our best communication aspirations cannonball out the window. I know that as a parent, there are times that “No!” simply means “no” (no further explanation required) and, on occasion, we do want our kids to seek our approval. However, kids may tune out just because we are the parent.
Try putting on your slightly less personal and slightly more business “Professor Mom/Dad” communication “regalia”, which may take your child off-guard . . . just enough to open up and respond in a way that will make your relationship that much more connected and rich. Until the next tantrum or whine.