So, this is happening. A student (or their momma bear parent) is angry and you happen to be in their path. Keep calm and carry on? That’s for novices. You need a plan to tame the bucking bronco into a gentle steed. Here is what to do, and not do.
First things first. This student is on the warpath and enters your office. It has begun. Resist the urge to defend yourself. If you engage in a fight when you are first approached then you are off on the wrong foot, and you will have to take the scenic route.
Do not argue. There can be no fight if the other person doesn’t rise to the occasion. The student is likely not angry with you, they are angry with the situation. Don’t just watch your mouth, watch your tone, and your body language. If your body says you are ready to fight, then your words mean nothing.
Set your state of mind in the right place. Your goal is not to ‘win’. Your goal is to understand.
You are off to a good start. Time to investigate. Ask for an explanation, and choose to genuinely listen to the response provided. Really and truly listen. Stop making leering expressions and unfurl your eyebrows when they speak. There will be some ranting here, but take it in for a moment.
Tip: If the student is too ‘extra’ at this point, consider asking them to write down their concerns before they speak. This may help them articulate what they are trying to communicate without screaming.
Don’t devalue their anger. “Well, that’s nothing to get upset about!” is never a great response. I doubt you would dare say that to your spouse or your mother…unless you want a fight. Also, don’t agree with their anger unless you mean it. Be careful here, you don’t want to add more fuel to the fire.
Ask yourself, what is the missing piece? The student is offering you clues to what is really going on. Ask questions to continue your investigation. 99% of the time someone is angry because they are frustrated. Frustration is defined as the lack of ability, tools, knowledge, or resources required to complete a task. Which of these items is missing? And, are you the person who is missing something? Don’t discount that as an option.
Maybe you know the student needs to complete paperwork. In a defensive state of mind, you assume they are lazy, but what if it is something else? Maybe they provided it to your office, but it accidentally was misplaced? Maybe the student gave it to the wrong department? Did they email the form, but your email servers were down that day?
Do not try a quick fix to get the student out of the office. Band-Aids don’t heal bullet wounds. Move forward with resolving the situation professionally. Follow up and follow through. If you don’t, you could be reliving this experience all over again in a day or week.
So that’s over now…or so you thought. I hate to tell you, but you are not done.
There is more work to be done. Use the information you have gathered in this situation to be proactive. Is there a pattern here? Are there other students who will have the same issue? Life handed you an opportunity to prevent this from happening again. If you choose to really commit to being a solution you will find something that can be improved. It may save you from the next unpleasant student.
Unfortunately, there will be times when you must throw in the towel and call it quits. Some people cannot be helped because they refuse to move forward. There is no reason for you to tolerate combative or abusive behavior. If your student is not following the Code of Conduct set forth by your institution, then you have no choice but to take the necessary actions. I encourage you to take a moment and refresh yourself on that policy. You don’t want the next angry person to be your boss!