Timely Advising: Incorporating Counseling Skills into the Advising Appointment
After calling from work to confirm the office will be open, a graduate student goes to the financial aid office at 4:55 pm on a Thursday afternoon to turn in student loan paperwork. Unfamiliar with the process, she is ushered impatiently from the front desk to a teller who purses his lips and sends her down another hallway for a signature from the director who is on his cell phone and getting ready to lock his office. After obtaining the director’s signature, the student takes her paperwork to his secretary, who files the form and smiles, chats a little bit, and wishes the student a good evening.
Many academic advisers have probably handled some variation of this scenario: A student comes to the office in need of assistance, is unfamiliar with the appropriate steps and is running late or possibly upset and impatient, or wishes to ask several questions as the office is closing. In certain situations, it may be easy to become frustrated with the student’s apparent tardiness, laziness, ignorance, attitude, etc. What is important to remember—and more important to practice—is to demonstrate politeness and refreshed focus and energy with every student who arrives in the office. To maintain this refreshed energy with each student we advise, the Appreciative Advising model can guide the conversation and help to reach the student on his or her level (Bloom, Huston, & He, 2009). To enhance the Appreciative Advising model, the counseling field can contribute additional techniques and a lens through which we can view the advising conversation. Specifically, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy ideas (Rubin & Yalom, 2003) and Ivey, Ivey, and Zalaquett’s (2010) Five-Stage Interview Structure can provide strategies to hone the adviser’s skills in guiding the conversation and connecting with the student in the advising session. The purpose of this article is to highlight counseling techniques and strategies applicable to the advising field and apply them in alignment with the Appreciative Advising model to make the advising session as timely and effective as possible.
Appreciative Advising Model and Five-Stage Interview Parallel
Bloom, Huston, and He’s (2008) Appreciative Advising model includes six phases through which the conversation should progress to make the best use of advisers’ time with students. The phases are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don’t Settle (Bloom et al., 2009). Disarming is the first step in the conversation model, and it can be as simple as smiling, shaking hands, calling the student by name, and getting up from behind the desk to greet the student in the waiting room or at the door. The Discover and Dream phases aid the adviser in discovering the student’s background stories and goals for the future (Bloom et al., 2009). This could involve asking what classes the student has taken, what the student enjoyed about previous classes, and how the student would choose and arrange classes for next semester. The Design and Deliver phases are when the student, with the adviser’s help, formulates a plan for action and then follows through with that plan (Bloom et al., 2009). Such stages can include deciding on a realistic course schedule for the next semester and then registering for classes. The Don’t Settle phase then allows the adviser to help the student reflect on and evaluate his or her actions, and at this point the adviser can return to the beginning of the cycle and help the student dream and design for the next challenge or issue (Bloom et al., 2009).
Ivey et al.(2010) presented an interview structure encompassing five stages through which the session should progress: Relationship, Story and Strengths, Goals, Restory, and Action. In the Relationship stage, the client and counselor initiate the session and build rapport and trust with one another (Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2010, pp. 212–213). In the Story and Strengths stage, the counselor encourages the client to share stories and experiences and also to brainstorm about strengths and skills when handling his or her experiences (Ivey et al., 2010, p. 214). The Goals stage is when the counselor and client engage in mutual goal setting and formulate the ideal outcome to the problem or situation (Ivey et al., 2010, p. 215). In the Restory stage, the counselor helps the client reframe his or her story and formulate alternatives and options using the client’s strengths (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 216–217). The Action stage involves the client applying the conversation and goals to his or her current life situation and concluding the counseling session (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 217–218).
Ivey et al. (2010, p. 209) described the interview process above as the Five-Stage Interview:
- Story & Strengths
In comparing the Appreciative Advising (AA) model in Figure 1 to the Five-Stage Interview Structure (IS), one can draw parallels between the two models by Bloom et al. (2009) and Ivey et al. (2010). The Disarm (AA) and Relationship (IS) stages both involve the adviser helping the student feel comfortable and welcome at the beginning of the advising appointment through verbal and nonverbal actions and cues. The Discover (AA) and Story & Strengths (IS) stages focus on the adviser digging deeper and learning about the student’s experiences, strengths, and skills in handling life situations. The Dream (AA) and Goals (IS) stages both aim to push the student to share his or her ideas for the future and goals for achieving those ideas. The Design (AA) and Restory (IS) stages provide the opportunity for the student and adviser to reframe the student’s current situation and formulate a plan to put the student’s goals into action. The Deliver (AA) and Action (IS) stages then involve the student implementing the plan(s) from the advising session.
The only incongruent step between both models is the Don’t Settle stage in the Appreciative Advising model. This step is left out of the Five-Stage Interview model, though in some ways it could be seen as inherent in the underlying principles of the model, because the counselor will inevitably follow-up on a client’s previous conversations and actions during future appointments. The Appreciative Advising model, however, clearly defines that sixth follow-up stage and gives the adviser a better sense of intentionality in working with students and the ability to articulate the benefits of such a process (Bloom et al., 2009). It is also beneficial to clearly state such a stage, because advisers are not licensed counselors and are not necessarily expected to, nor responsible for, meeting weekly or even often with their student advisees.
Utilizing Relevant Counseling Skills and Techniques
An adviser can use the ideas in these models as a guide to help students reflect on information and actions and then to act upon their reflections and goals. The microskills hierarchy, which includes the Five-Stage Interview Structure, provides a number of helpful ideas and strategies for refining one’s skills in active listening and directing intentional conversations (Ivey et al., 2010). The skills discussed below include active listening and using nonverbal language and questions effectively. The objective in highlighting these three techniques is to promote an awareness of communication patterns and to form the habit of thinking about and choosing statements and actions intentionally. This can help the adviser direct the conversation, refocusing it when necessary, and guide students effectively and efficiently.
Active listening is an essential skill for advisers to use. Advisers need to be able to understand students’ issues before they can help them formulate and implement solutions. The use of verbal and nonverbal encouragers can help students feel more open and part of the conversation (i.e. head nodding, smiling, leaning forward, verbal phrases like “uh-huh” and “hmm,” and repeating key words from the student’s phrases). Summarizing and paraphrasing students’ statements and feelings can also help them feel understood and more willing to open up in the appointment (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 150–151).
Nonverbal language is another significant communication aspect to consider in advising sessions. This includes body language of the student and adviser as well as the aesthetic of the environment where the appointment is held. Maintaining open posture and facing the student can communicate interest in the conversation, and reading the student’s body language to see if he or she is open and engaged or closed and disinterested can guide the questions an adviser asks (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 130–133). In addition to asking appropriate questions, paying attention to nonverbal language can open the conversation to feedback and reflection for the student. For example, if students say they are comfortable with a possible solution while shifting their eyes around the room and fidgeting in the chair, they are clearly communicating they are uncomfortable, and advisers could address this discrepancy and redirect the conversation. Also, advisers should study the decorations and organizations in their offices and consider what nonverbal messages students are receiving from the environment. They can then try to make the students feel more comfortable as they enter the adviser’s office.
The last technique from the microskills hierarchy involves using questions effectively to make the most of the session. Depending on the information the adviser wants from the student, the adviser can ask open or closed questions. Open questions lead the student to share details and experiences, and generally these begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 94–97). Advisers should be careful when asking why questions, because depending on the tone of the question, these types of questions can put the student on the defensive (Ivey et al., 2010, p. 104). Closed questions generally begin with “do,” “is,” or “are” and prompt students to give short answers (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 94–97). These can be helpful when the adviser is looking for specific bits of information or intentionally trying to limit the student’s explanation. Given the time constraints in most sessions, intentionally thinking about and using open and closed questions can help the adviser discover the important information and focus the conversation.
As the Five-Stage Interview Structure is part of the microskills hierarchy, these techniques are already meant to work in tandem with the interview process (Ivey et al., 2010, pp. 209–210). When incorporating these strategies into the Appreciative Advising model, however, advisers have the opportunity to be more intentional in guiding conversations with students. Attending to nonverbal language helps the adviser initiate and build the relationship with students and make them feel comfortable in the office and throughout the session. The use of verbal and nonverbal encouragers easily reflects the Disarm, Discover, and Dream phases and helps students feel more understood and willing to share personal information. Summarizing and paraphrasing students’ ideas can be helpful in the Dream and Design phases when clarify their goals and information; restating their ideas can open the conversation for reflection and analysis. Using questions effectively, specifically open questions, can allow students to reflect on their skills and abilities and lead them to reframe their perspective and focus on accomplishing their goals. The Appreciative Advising model highlights the adviser using open-ended questions to push students to discover their strengths and reframe their perspectives in a positive light (Bloom et al., 2009). The strategies from the microskills hierarchy can add to this goal and magnify the adviser’s ability to lead an intentional discussion.
Timing in the Advising Session
It is important to note that though the conversation guidelines in the Appreciative Advising and Five-Stage Interview models are referred to as stages or phases, there is neither a set process nor time requirement for moving through them. Generally, the relationship and rapport with students is important to establish at the beginning of the advising session, and the follow-up with students is best delivered at the end of or even after the appointment. The inner stages, however, can be mixed around, reordered, and repeated as necessary, fitting together as the conversation moves (Ivey et al., 2010, p. 210). In “formfitting” these stages throughout the conversation, the adviser can adjust the dialogue to take as little or as much time as students need, and one can accomplish this by using the skills discussed above in combination with certain Solution-Focused Brief Therapy ideas (Rubin & Yalom, 2003).
One of the central ideas in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy is that there is not necessarily a connection between a problem and its solution in the conversation (Rubin & Yalom, 2003). In essence, what the problem is or was does not matter; what matters is developing a solution for the current situation using the client’s skills and strengths (Rubin & Yalom, 2003). This conversation can start in asking the miracle question:
Suppose a miracle happens overnight, tonight, when you go to bed. And all the problems that brought you here to talk to me today are gone. Disappeared. But because this happens while you were sleeping, you have no idea that there was a miracle during the night. The problem is all gone, all solved. So when you are slowly waking up, coming out of your sleep, what might be the first, small clue that will make you think, ‘Oh my gosh. There must have been a miracle during the night. The problem is all gone’?” And that’s the beginning of it. People start to tell you, and they add more and more descriptions. (Rubin & Yalom, 2003)
The purpose of this reflection-based question is to enable clients to think about the solution and situation in a positive light, in such a way that clients empower themselves with their own ideas. Ideally, this activity will then open the conversation to ask clients about certain skills, abilities, and strengths that will help them progress through the various steps in their proposed solution.
Another strategy that advisers can implement from solutions-focused brief therapy is the use of scaling questions. Scaling questions involve the client rating a topic, such as comfort, happiness or motivation, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest (Dolan, 2007). One can use this type of question to discover clients’ thoughts and reflections, and scaling questions generally take less time to answer and therefore provide quicker reflection than the miracle question.
In applying these brief therapy ideas to advising students, the Appreciative Advising and Five-Stage Interview models introduce variations of these ideas. Both conversation models focus on drawing out students’ stories, strengths, and unique abilities, which can help advisers and students reframe students’ perspectives of the situation. The miracle question listed above can be shortened in the advising setting to “What is your ideal schedule for studying?” or “In an ideal world, what would your career look like?” One can tailor the question to any given issue; the essential idea is getting students to visualize and describe their ideal scenario and then connecting the students’ current situation to that ideal. This connection is the students’ solution and plan of action for the immediate future.
The miracle question can be a tool to gain a large amount information and insight to help guide the conversation in a potentially minimal amount of time. The scaling question listed above can also be used to maximize valuable student reflections while minimizing the time needed in the conversation. Thus, moving through the stages can take a matter of minutes, and refining the counseling skills listed above can increase the adviser’s effectiveness in guiding intentional conversations with their students. Advisers who have more time in a session can expand the conversation to discover more and allow the student to reflect, analyze, and dream more in the dialogue. Ideally, the outcome of that longer conversation will be a deeper connection and a more in-depth discussion of the student’s issues, strengths, and potential solutions.
Advising students can be an extremely rewarding experience for advising and student affairs professionals; however, the work can potentially be time consuming and draining. Using the counseling-based techniques and tips discussed here in conjunction with the Appreciative Advising model, advisers can reach and connect with their students while making the most of their time. As Michael P. Wilson, Ph.D, M.D., emergency medicine clinical research fellow at University of California San Diego Medical Center, said about his medical school experience, “Good advisers help you pick your classes, but great advisers encourage you” along the way to follow through with your goals (personal communication, March 23, 2011). This is the ultimate goal of an adviser: to help and encourage students to reach their goals in the time available, while realizing that students may or may not fully realize the benefit of their interactions with their advisers during their time at the university.
Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.
Bloom, J. L., Huston, B. L., & He, Y. (2009). 6 phases for optimizing educational experiences. Appreciative Advising. Retrieved from http://www.appreciativeadvising.net/overview.html
Dolan, Y. (2007). What is solution-focused therapy? Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.solutionfocused.net/solutionfocusedtherapy.html
Ivey, A. E., Ivey, M. B., & Zalaquett, C. P. (2010). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Rubin, B. & Yalom, V. (2003). Solution-focused therapy: An interview with Insoo Kim Berg, LCSW. Psychotherapy.net. Retrieved from http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/insoo-kim-berg#section-the-miracle-question
About the Author(s)
Abbey K. Hirt is a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina. She can be reached at email@example.com.