...There are professional ways to deal with difficult students without resorting to the distasteful tactics that we dislike in their behavior.
“In This Corner . . .”
You’d like to think that most students are courteous and appreciative of the services that you do for them.
But out there in the mix – hopefully a statistical minority – are the ones who have honed confrontation to a fine art! They are upset about something. They are too proud to accept any responsibility for the foul-up that has complicated their lives. So the strategy is to blame you. In the course of explaining their problem, they manage to communicate their judgment that you and all of your colleagues are incompetent, lazy, and – more often than not – out to get them personally!
You should have that kind of time, huh!
I do a workshop on techniques for handling difficult customers. One day recently, I had barely started the presentation when one of the participants flagged me down. “It sounds like you’re going to tell us how we can be nice to these people. I think that’s a mistake. If you’re nice to them, they will get to thinking that the way to get what they want is to bully and be obnoxious to the customer service person. Being nice just makes it worse. They’ll come back next time and behave in an even more disrespectful way.”
So where am I supposed to go with that? The temptation is to say, “You’re right. Why don’t you be nasty to them right back and they can tell their friends what creeps you are in financial aid until the whole campus believes it. Then maybe people will stay away from your office or, at least, give you lots of practice at dealing with surly students.”
Instead I said, “I think there are professional ways to deal with difficult students without resorting to the distasteful tactics that we dislike in their behavior. I’m going to share some of those ideas with you. Then you have to make a choice. How will you opt to respond when those occasions occur. This is the artistry in your work.”
It’s important to remember that you are the professional. If a student wants to provoke a spitting contest with you, the professional will decline the invitation. The irony is that you would win the spitting contest. You have the resources, the title, the information that their needs require. To continue the analogy, you have the downwind advantage. There is no way they can beat you in a spitting contest.
But is that what your job is about? Winning spitting contests with students? Hardly.
In this case I went on with the presentation I’d prepared. I talked about listening and empathy and recasting their message in “needs” terms, and some other tools. Toward the end, my heckler spoke up again. “You haven’t mentioned humor. I find that making fun of them is a good way to bring them down.”
“TO BRING THEM DOWN” – !!??
I’d clearly been unsuccessful in impacting the mind-set of this one lady. If she sees her job in dealing with difficult students as the responsibility for “bringing them down”, then she and the students she deals with are going to have a difficult history. But what if, in the end, this financial aid office person saw herself as part of the larger picture? What if she learned to see herself as part of the college’s commitment to “building them up”?
So what about the student who decides that being a bully is how you make things happen? I’d like to think that my modeling of patient, considerate service might, in the end, teach a better lesson. If it doesn’t get learned this time by this person, well maybe I’ll get another chance. Ask any prof. The students don’t all get it the first time.
Dan Brent is a Professional Development Officer with Citibank. He regularly makes presentations for financial aid office staffs and conferences.