Setting the Tone by Listening

My responsibilities as associate provost and dean of instruction position me to serve as a sort of academic ombudsman, a person who receives concerns raised by both faculty and students and who, when necessary, facilitates the proper execution of the university’s grievance procedures.

Given the typical demeanor of an aggrieved individual, I sometimes have the opportunity to engage someone who is a) frustrated and demanding restitution, b) mortified and seeking reconciliation, c) belligerent and threatening litigation, or d) a quixotic mixture of all the above. By their very nature, such engagements are seldom comfortable; indeed, the level of discomfort makes the all-important task of listening well difficult—but not impossible. Creating an environment that gently separates the emotional from the rational is the first step in addressing a grievance and perhaps defusing it.

Creating such an environment begins at the first point of contact. With students and with faculty, it is important to communicate a receptive, supportive attitude from the get-go. Years ago, when I first became an administrator, I recall exiting my office to come face-to-face with a disgruntled student who was clearly intent upon registering his concerns with the powers that be and had made his way to my door to demand justice in short order. Without thinking, I introduced myself and then asked, rather matter-of-factly, “How can I help you?” In response to my question, asked with no hint of a strategy in mind, the student was visibly taken aback. His anger and defensiveness dissipated, and with an audible sigh of relief he shared his problem.

Significantly, I did not solve the student’s problem that day, but I did have some hand in fostering an environment in which he felt comfortable and in giving him hope that his voice was being heard. I later learned through the grapevine that my asking the student how I might help him had provided the necessary balm. He had needed a willing audience, and I had by my mere choice of words provided him with one. That spontaneous response on my part is now my standard greeting to begin meetings of this type.

With the tone set, the next step in creating a positive environment for addressing grievances is to listen demonstrably. In other words, make sure the “plaintiff” knows that you are engaged. Certainly there are times when I would contend that I am engaged even though my actions might suggest otherwise. After all, I can follow the evening news reasonably well while thumbing through the mail and preparing dinner. Regardless of how adept I may be at multitasking, a meeting with a frustrated student or faculty member is not the time to exercise those skills. Maintaining eye contact, taking notes, asking questions, and letting calls go to voice mail communicate that what is an issue for him or her is an issue for me too. Listening demonstrably encourages venting; oftentimes the opportunity to vent is the only result the plaintiff really needs.

Listening demonstrably needs to be accompanied by responding objectively. Listening well facilitates thorough processing of everything the speaker shares; experience confirms that the speaker may elect to omit certain relevant facts or may himself not be privy to all the circumstances contributing to the decision or action that raised his ire. For this reason it is essential to be empathetic without being affirming. Careful listening can be misconstrued as affirmation, so I make it a point to emphasize that I will need to do my homework, which includes exploring the issue with the other parties involved. I’ve entertained the objections of more than one expectant graduate bemoaning a professor’s unreasonable grading policies, only to discover that the student had failed to complete a major assignment—a fact that he or she conveniently omitted from our conversation. Whether I am inclined to agree or disagree with what I am being told, I make a point of withholding judgment. The student or faculty member needs to depart satisfied that she has been heard and confident that the grievance process is sound; my role is to facilitate the process, not to assume the role of advocate.

Finally, an unhappy student or faculty member will typically take some comfort in knowing that a procedure exists for addressing concerns. Faculty know this but still seem to appreciate a reminder that such matters will be handled decently and in an orderly fashion; students, on the other hand, may not have a clue and are often relieved to know that a mechanism is in place for such a time as this. Reviewing the university’s published grievance procedure with the student or faculty member provides a plan of action. In so doing, I am not eliminating the stress that inevitably accompanies processing any type of grievance; I am, however, diminishing the stress that arises from a sense of helplessness and desperation.

Thoreau once said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” The greatest compliment we can pay a distressed student or professor comes when we attend to that person’s concerns.

Dr. Barbara McMillin is the associate provost and dean of instruction at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Excerpted from Listening: The Greatest Compliment, Academic Leader, September 2009.