Photo of a student and family member having a conversation.

College is often a time for students to explore their independence and cultivate their own identities as adults. As we support our students through these transitions, we may find ourselves having important (or challenging) conversations. Conversations may feel more challenging when the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong.

Here are some tips you can use to navigate important (or challenging) conversations with your student.


Plan ahead

You may be the one to start a difficult conversation with your student. When this is the case, preparing for the conversation in advance can be helpful. Planning ahead assures that you’re able to share your views and hear your student’s perspective more effectively. 

Take a few moments to consider these questions:

  • What do you hope to accomplish from this conversation?
  • What would an ideal outcome look like for you?
  • How might this conversation impact your relationship with your student?
  • How will you know when it’s time to take a break?
  • What assumptions are you making about your student or how they will respond?

Before entering into a potentially stressful conversation, it’s important to do a check-in with ourselves about what we’re expecting and what could realistically happen, so we can prepare ourselves emotionally. 

If you’re not the one to initiate the conversation, it can be helpful to ask for time to pull your thoughts together before engaging with your student. Make a plan and pick a time when you both feel comfortable talking. This will help you feel more prepared, and the conversation won’t catch you off guard.


Be mindful of time and place

Starting a tough conversation can be difficult. You can set yourself and your student up for success by choosing a quiet space to talk, finding a time that works for all parties, explaining why you want to have this conversation and sharing what you hope will come of it.


Use the EARS method

We all know that having fiercely different opinions or positions on topics can create conflict. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that conflict can also arise from communication breakdowns and misunderstandings. That’s why it’s important to practice healthy communication skills such as the EARS method. 

Here’s how it works:

E

Explore

When we have difficult conversations, it can be easy to get caught up in our side of things. However, it’s important to explore the other person’s perspective by asking open-ended questions. For instance, you may ask your student to talk about how they’re doing or how their semester is going. In other cases, it may be important to ask your student if they understand your concerns.

A

Acknowledge

After we’ve had a chance to explore our student’s experiences and thoughts on the matter at hand, it’s important to acknowledge what they may be feeling in the moment. For instance, they may have shared that they are stressed or not doing well. Take some time to empathize with their experiences and emotions.

R

Restate

Getting clarification can help us avoid misunderstandings or miscommunication. As you talk with your student, take some time to restate what you think you heard and ask for clarity. For instance, the impact of words doesn’t always match their intentions. Try summarizing what you heard and asking your student if it sounds accurate.

S

Seek solutions

When we have difficult conversations, it’s important to preserve our relationships. One way to do this is to seek out solutions together. For instance, if your student is struggling with their grades, you can help them brainstorm strategies that will support their academic career moving forward, whether they want to meet with a tutor, visit office hours more often or seek out additional resources.


Take breaks as needed

Tough conversations can become heated or escalate more than we’d like them to. When this happens, both parties may say something they’ll regret later. In these moments, consider taking a break from the conversation. Reiterate why this conversation is important and that you value the other person. Ask your student if you can both return to the conversation after everyone has had time to cool off. Consider going for a short walk, having a snack or getting a good night’s sleep before restarting the conversation. 


Reflect and follow up

While it would be ideal, change doesn’t happen overnight. Conversations don’t always resolve the way we’d like them to, and more often than not, seeing progress will require a series of conversations and a willingness to keep trying. If things feel unresolved, let your student know you appreciate their time and you’d like to follow up with them again in the future. Try to give them some time and space to decompress before approaching them again to discuss.

If things feel like they are resolving more quickly, it’s important to share your appreciation and gratitude for your student. Let them know that you value their help and input when navigating tough situations.


Seek support

If you’re concerned about your student, you don’t have to try and support them on your own. There are a number of resources available on campus to help.

Student Support and Case Management (SSCM)

SSCM is available to provide personalized support for students who may be experiencing mental health concerns, hospitalizations, suicidal ideation, risk of harm, loss of a loved one, family emergencies or other concerning behaviors. Students can be referred to an SSCM case manager by calling 303-492-7348 or by filling out an online referral form

Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS)

CAPS is the primary resource for student mental health on campus. They offer 24/7 crisis management services as well as referral options if you’re concerned about your student’s mental health or wellbeing. CAPS can also provide talking points for parents who aren’t sure how to speak to their student about mental health concerns.

CU Boulder Police Department (CUPD)

CUPD provides on-campus welfare checks for students who may pose a threat to themselves or others, or students who are currently experiencing a mental health crisis. If you’re concerned about a student and would like to request a welfare check, please call 303-492-6666. A CU Boulder mental health provider serves as an on-call for mental health related dispatches.