Section 7.1: Listening and Helping Skills
The nature of the RA role means that staff are often put in a position to be an effective helper for their residents in times of need. Even with all the professional staff and additional resources available both on and off campus, sometimes residents feel most comfortable talking with a fellow peer, their RA. Please keep in mind the following listening and helping skills as you find yourself in similar situations.
When you've established trust with your residents, they may seek you out to discuss personal matters or to gain emotional support. The first step in being truly supportive is learning how to be attentive and demonstrating that you are engaged and available to the person with whom you are interacting. Being a good listener and creating an appropriate environment for communicating with your residents is key.
When talking to residents:
- Be aware of your schedule and surroundings. Do you have time to talk? Are you going to potentially be distracted?
- When the person is talking to you be sure not to interrupt. Let them finish their thought and you'll have time to respond. Keep a notepad handy to jot down thoughts you may have as they speak.
- Encourage the person to talk about feelings. Use non-verbal cues such as nods and quiet verbal agreements to demonstrating you're listening.
- Don’t be afraid of periods of silence. These will change throughout your conversation. It might take someone longer to feel comfortable, and sitting in silence can be a powerful demonstration of your patience and care for their situation.
- Use attentive body language. Sit on an equal level and facing the person. Don't cross your arms or sit in a way that's closed off. Don't sit in a chair when they are sitting on the floor. Don't stand over them when they are sitting on their bed. Do ask if you can take a seat before you do so in their room. Do join them on the floor if that's where they're sitting. Do be attentive of your body language.
- Be comfortable but try not to fidget. This can be distracting to the other person.
- Pay attention to the emotions being expressed. This will help you know how to better interact with the other person.
- When it's appropriate ask the resident what they need from you or what they would like you to do next. What is their ideal outcome if there were no limitations? This will help guide you toward the preferred realistic solution.
- Under no circumstance should you judge the person. Their problem may not seem like a big deal, but it may seem like the most important and consuming thing in their life at the time.
- Be wary of soothing them with phrases like, "I can understand that," or "I've been through that, too." Until you really know a situation, this may seem preemptive and you may actually be wrong about your understanding or supposed shared experience.
- Avoid rushing to a solution. Sometimes the process is more important than the destination. Venting could be all they really needed.
Active Listening Techniques
- Listen for content and feelings.
- Give a short paraphrased statement about what was expressed and heard and provide an opportunity for the person to clarify your interpretation. "So as I understand it, you said this and that. Did I understand that correctly?"
- Ask open ended questions when you want more detail and content. "Tell me how the night led up to this incident." Ask closed ended questions when you just need specific facts. "Do you want this to happen?"
- Do not agree or disagree with the person. Use neutral language and expressions to help the person come to their own conclusion.
- Clarify comments to help the person see other points of view. "Did I hear you correctly that you want your roommate to move out the day before finals?"
- Encourage the person to reflect on the conversation. Set a date and time to come back and continue the discussion.
- Acknowledge the worth or value of the other person, and their feelings on the issue at hand. "Thank you for sharing with me."
Helping vs. Rescuing
Sometimes helping someone and rescuing someone can seem similar, however they can have different outcomes. At times it can be easy to rescue a student and solve the problem, or just provide the conclusion to the resident that you feel is appropriate. This may not always be helpful to that person as they won't be able to do it themselves in future situations. When a resident comes to you it may be important to empower them to make their own decisions and help them develop the skills needed to resolve their own issues. Hopefully they will be able to solve this problem for themselves or for their friends next time, giving you a break. Below are some examples of what it means to be a rescuer vs. a helper:
- A rescuer is like a super hero. They swoop in and do the deed while the person is carried on their back to a safe place. In the RA role, they may give advice when not asked, solve problems related and not related to the issue, not allow for reflection and feedback, and doesn’t teach skills.
- A helper is like a magical elf. They follow the lead of the person and help them with magic spells that can do things the person can't do themselves. In the RA role, they listen for questions and requests, present potential ideas based on what is being asked, give only the information that is needed, and follows-up periodically for future problem solving.
Try to be the RA that teaches your magic spells to the residents so they can solve their own problems next time without your help. It's natural to want to swoop up people and solve their problems when you know the solution, but remember that you once didn't know how to do that. Now that you do, it's easy to see the solutions. Pass that skill on.
Confidentiality in the RA role can be complicated. There are situations where you can take in information and lock it away, not telling anyone else. Then, there are times when you must share information with other professionals in order to avoid even bigger consequences. Let's explore these scenarios.
Trust is a critical component of every relationship. This is likely a big reason why a resident may come talk with you. Residents may share all types of personal and sensitive information with you in confidence. They usually approach you with the expectation that your conversation is private and that it will stay between you. If you violate that confidence, you risk losing the person's trust and the opportunities for them to confide in you again during an even more serious issue.
Even with that expectation for privacy, you can sometimes create more harm by not bringing the concern to the attention of the appropriate people. Sometimes keeping information private can be a problem if the resident’s best interest is not being served. Consider whether or not the resident's best interest is being served by asking yourself: could this situation result in self-harm or harm to others, or is what's being shared go beyond your training or ability level? Not passing the information on can cause more harm than good.
Please consider these tips when trying to navigate confidentiality:
- Always be honest. Try and help them understand that you are obligated to report certain types of information. Do not ever promise that you will be able to keep every conversation private. Explain that you may need to contact a professional staff member, but that you will not tell anyone who doesn't need to know what's going on. Often if they are venting about a common roommate problem, you will be able to keep that confidential from other residents. This is likely enough for a resident to feel comfortable.
- If you need to tell someone, always make sure they are an appropriate resource. When in doubt, contact your supervisor or ask Campus Safety for help and they can get the right person to contact you. You do not need to share any identifying information at this time, but can ask for advice or clarification on how to proceed with the situation. If they cannot directly help you they will at least be able point you in the right direction. Do not tell other RAs or your friends in hopes that they will keep it to themselves. Always assume that if you are telling another peer any information, it will get out. Use this as a gauge as to whether or not you can share specific information. Know your campus resources, including the confidential resources, so that you will feel more comfortable referring someone to the appropriate service.
- If another RA tries to tell you about a confidential conversation, stop them. Please remind them that they should not be freely sharing this information and either need to keep it confidential or talk with their supervisor.
- If you are going to involve someone else, always let the original person know. Be as transparent as you can regarding who will know what information. Explain the reasons why you need to share the information, and ask the person to understand. Whether they do or not is something we can deal with later, but your primary responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of that student and any other student who may be impacted (this includes yourself). If you are sitting quietly with this person and are having a good conversation, it's okay to let them know you think you need an expert to assist at that point and that you will contact them. However, if you are in a tense situation where the student may be in immediate danger and you need immediate assistance, it can be okay to call for help first and then notify the student once help is on its way. Immediate danger to the student's or other's safety is the mitigating factor on how soon you should notify a student when someone else is included.