Walking-Talking: The Closed-Door Option

Cathleen M. Morreale, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Introduction

We often hear that effective relationship building and promoting trust are based on the “open door.” If you open it, they will come. Proponents of this perspective see the open door as a metaphor for welcoming students and being willing to create a more open relationship by removing barriers to communication. Students benefit from engagement with academic advisers (Young-Jones, Burt, Dison, & Hawthorne, 2013), and advisers can gain work satisfaction from developing stronger relationships with students (Epps, 2002). On the other hand, the open door can be more time consuming for the adviser and can also be underutilized by students, suggesting a challenge to time management. Furthermore, the open door might be considered beyond the scope of a job description as it suggests openness to discussion beyond coursework and advising. Another option is to close the door, which mediates the challenges of an open door but also reduces the benefits. In some office layouts the open door may also include partitions between offices, making sensitive conversations more difficult. For the most part, advisers do seem to be encouraged by the metaphor of the open door and the potential of relationship building with students if advising offices are viewed as accessible and open.

What are the traditional characteristics of advising as far as space is concerned? Many advisers fill typical “9 to 5” positions, representing a “desk job” image that may include back-to-back meetings with students. Expanding the advising role outside of the office is often secondary to the primary duty of assisting students one-on-one in an office setting. Students typically arrive for appointments, check-in, and quietly wait for their turn. The physical perspective of these meetings is an adviser at his or her desk, opposite a student, enclosed in space.

Walk-in appointments are the most popular manifestation of the open-door policy, with slightly less rigidity than standard appointments. Research suggests that the walk-in appointment is an effective means by which students can immediately seek and receive assistance (e.g., Young, Dick, Herring, & Lee, 2008). An open door removes a physical barrier, and also encourages the common trend of e-communication as an alternative method of contact, including interactive options, such as video conferencing (Golubski, 2009; Kostin, 2003). However, beyond responding to quick, simple questions, e-communication may actually discourage relationship building by closing lines of communication. With the use and overuse of texting and email as primary forms of communication, the concept of meeting face-to-face with advisers elicits social anxiety in undergraduate and graduate students alike, and even causes apprehension for some faculty and advisers (Vitasari, Wahab, Othman, & Awang, 2010).

Yet what academic advisers fail to notice is that the door that opens into their offices also opens out to the campus and the students. Advisers can shut the door behind themselves and venture out onto campus with students, walking together with or without an intended destination. From both the student and adviser’s perspective, this kind of  “office” has variety, a 360-degree view, and fresh air. The concept of space is radically different between in-office and out-of-office experiences, as are expectations and boundaries (Hays, 1999; Zur, 2012).

A Model Practice for Advising

While advisers are not therapists or counselors, much can be gleaned from research and practical theory in the fields of psychology and counseling, which has informed effective practice in areas of college student development and learning outcomes. It is not out of the ordinary to consider innovative counseling techniques and practices as potential methods when working in an advising role with college students. Recently, much work in psychology and counseling has focused on strengths-based perspectives (Galassi & Akos, 2007; Harris, Lopez, & Thoresen, 2007; Kaczmarek, 2006; Linley, 2006; Smith, 2006). This lens has subsequently made its way into higher education and, specifically, into student services, especially in promoting positive student outcomes both in and out of the classroom and in regard to faculty/student engagement (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2010; Schreiner & Anderson, 2005; Snyder & Lopez, 2009).

One example of a counseling technique that can be applied to adviser-student relationship building is the positive psychology therapy method of nature-based walking (or exercise) combined with talk-therapy. Zur referred to therapeutic relationships that break the physical boundary of the traditional office space “out-of-office experiences” (Zur, 2001, ¶ 1). Walking-talking may also prove to be a solution to the lack of efficient and welcoming office space. This is especially true for advisers who may share spaces or maintain less accessible office hours, further discouraging the traditional open-door philosophy. Walking-talking counseling made a brief appearance in popular media in the mid-2000s on Good Morning America (ABC News, 2006) but remains a fairly uncommon method. Walking-talking counseling, which can easily be adapted to advisers’ work with college students, involves intentionally meeting outside of the office and walking together in active dialogue (Morreale, 2012).

Traditionally, communication between advisers and students is often one way—from the authority figure down to the student (e.g., directing students to resources about which they are not aware). This type of relationship tends to be formulated around a prescriptive rather than a developmental model. In other words, it further depends on identifying deficits or weaknesses and focusing on problems. Even solution-based techniques often reframe solutions in problem-based language (Barbuto, Story, Fritz, & Schinstock, 2011). By incorporating walking-talking meetings, the one-way relationship has both parties walking in the same direction together. This technique supports and aligns well with future-oriented and strengths-based appreciative inquiry theory for advising (Santovec, 2009). Additionally, the physical direction of moving forward can elicit and make inherent in conversation ideas of progress (Morreale, 2012); further expanding ideas or paths from a metaphorical realm in advising to a tangible experience. Perceptions of power and empowerment can, respectively, inhibit or support relationship building (Cohen, 1998), with the latter potentially supported in the more casual, mobile, and side-by-side walking-talking context.

Proponents of walk-and-talk therapy and counseling suggest that the benefits of walking-talking counseling or advising are many. One overarching benefit of on-the-move office hours is the intrinsic value to health through exercise. Walking is non-competitive and a fairly safe form of exercise (Hayes, 1999) and the multi-tasking benefit is mutually beneficial to the student and faculty or adviser. While promoting the message of comprehensive holistic advising and student health and wellness by promoting exercise is not uncommon (Fullerton, 2011; Szymanski, Pinto, Cherico, & Marcus, 1998), intentional walking-talking for student meetings, advising, and relationship building is likely a less commonly employed technique.

Another benefit of walking-talking stems from the tendency of nature to promote psychological well being (Doucette, 2004). In terms of promoting a positive interaction, nature has a calming effect. Research has found physical activity to be related to “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy” (Coon et al., 2011, p. 1761). These psychological benefits complement the physical benefits of exercise, encouraging the holistic development of students with the potential to increase outcomes academically and personally for both faculty and students.

The National Survey of Student Engagement has shown that student interactions in and out of the classroom are important for promoting student engagement and positive student learning outcomes (Kuh, et al., 2010). Research has also shown outcomes such as gains in personal and social development, in addition to general education knowledge (Umbach & Wawrzynski, 2005). Interactions through walking-talking advising can include conversation ranging from discussing course availability to dialoguing about ideas related to the career or major choices and providing feedback on progress and/or goal setting, all of which can take place in out-of-office meetings.

Furthermore, there are student groups for which out-of-office experiences may be particularly helpful. For example, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who often feel marginalized or powerless in educational situations (Venzant Chambers & McCready, 2011), may be discouraged from meeting with authority figures in the formal setting of an office (Grasha, 2002). “Feelings of marginalization [can be] perpetuated by institutional forces that pushed [students] to seek spaces of safety that were not always congruent with academic participation and engagement” (Venzant Chambers, & McCready, 2011, p. 1374). Another example of potentially effective out-of-office experiences might involve military veterans, for whom closed spaces may cause discomfort or unease related to post-traumatic stress disorder from combat experiences (Morreale, 2011). In addition, according to Rivera (2011, p. 40), “… different ways of connecting with the hard-to-reach student can be revealed through casual conversation.” Culturally, nature provides a common ground for conversation. For example, building a relationship with a student often starts with neutral-based small talk. Campus and natural environments may provide ideas for starting such conversations and may also remove tensions by walking tandem, rather than the standard office face-to-face meeting.

The Practice of Walking-Talking Advising

According to Morreale (2012), the following are suggestions for opening the door to out-of-office experiences and instituting non-office office hours:

  • Share with students the concept of walking-talking as a means of meeting to meet advising goals. Sometimes walking-talking will simply entail conversing on a topic and sometimes there will be more specific goals, formalizing the intent of the venture outside.
  • Offer walking-talking as an option, not as a requirement. Some students may be uncomfortable with the informality of this type of meeting; therefore in-office options may be more appropriate. For logistical reasons, walking-talking may not be an option due to environmental factors. Think creatively to identify routes that are sheltered from the weather and avoid overly active areas of campus, where conversation might be hindered.
  • Consider the resources needed for meeting the goals of the advising session. Know when resources are needed and what might be available on the go, versus those that are static in an office (e.g., technology and access to secure student information systems). Starting or ending a meeting in the office may be an option for overcoming this barrier.
  • Allow the goals of the meeting and the needs of the student to set the pace of the conversation, both of which can be discussed before setting out.
  • Consider how distractions can be used to support the conversation, while avoiding distractions that inhibit it.
  • Throughout the meeting, as with in-office conferences, participate actively in the dialogue. Walking side-by-side does limit opportunities to make eye contact, which is an important communication tool. Active listening techniques can demonstrate engagement.
  • The informal setting of walking-talking may elicit informal conversation and more fluid boundaries (Morreale, 2012), which has the potential to help build relationships (Regalado, 2003). Therefore, remain mindful of maintaining professional boundaries and confidentiality. This is certainly more difficult in open areas on campus, because out-of-office experiences deliberately take place in public places. Maintain confidentiality with the same diligence as in a traditional office space, even at the cost of limiting discussion.
  • Although walking-talking with students necessitates the fluidity of physical boundaries, other boundaries to consider include student’s personal space. Cultural boundaries might also lead to the decision that in-office meetings are more appropriate. The goals of the adviser-student meeting are based on the individual needs of the two parties, which guides the decision to open or close the office door, as well as on which side of it to meet.

Conclusion

Walking-talking has great potential as a means of meeting with students, advising them, and building relationships. As advisers develop and adapt practices and policies around student needs, walking-talking advising can provide an opportunity for maximizing outcomes holistic to both the student and adviser. Simply offering the option of “walking-talking office hours” or “location to be determined” can create an open door to dialogue.

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About the Author(s)

Cathleen M. Morreale, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Cathleen M. Morreale, Ph.D., is the public service internship coordinator and works in Undergraduate Education with experiential learning, internships, and service-learning initiatives at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, in Buffalo, New York. She can be reached at cwalther@buffalo.edu.

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