By: Katherine Sumner, IEP Campus Coordinator

The field of study abroad is full of passionate people. Students, parents, faculty members, and campus administrators all have vested, personal interests in the programs your office supports. That passion can bring both positive and negative interactions, the latter being the most draining and time-consuming. Read on for some simple steps to help you defuse emotionally-charged, high-stress situations:

Identify the Stakeholder(s)

Who is involved and invested in the situation? A student? Parents? Other staff and administrators? The obvious answer is whoever is calling/e-mailing/standing in front of you, but think about the issue’s source and impact. Maybe it’s a parent’s concern being expressed by the student. Or a staff member acting to fulfill directives from higher up. It’s important to identify all stakeholders, both seen and “behind the scenes.”

Identify the Emotion(s)

Typically, negative behavior stems from a basic emotion. While that emotion doesn’t necessarily excuse the behavior, it can definitely help you look further to determine the actual issue, and assess its severity. By suspending your own emotional response, you can put yourself in the stakeholder’s shoes, and separate their emotion from the issue at hand. Here are a few examples:

Example 1: Panicked phone call from a parent concerned about their child’s arrival in their host country

Emotion: Mama/Papa bear- they’re fearing for their child’s safety!

Issue: The student hasn’t communicated their arrival, yet

Example 2: Angry e-mail from a student upset that their coursework from abroad may not transfer.

Emotion: Fear, immaturity- they’re afraid of personal and academic consequences of their credit not transferring; they lack personal responsibility.

Issue: The student did not follow the pre-approval process.

Example 3:Tense conversation with a faculty member who opposes a new policy for short-term faculty-led programs.

Emotion: Aversion to change, fear of losing control of their program

Issue: The policy change is to align all programs with best practices, that improve safety for all participants, but is seen as threatening the program’s itinerary and academic content.

Work the Issue

Once you’ve identified the issue, you can jump straight into problem-solving, which often defuses the accompanying, intense emotions at the same time. It is important to remain positive, solutions-oriented, and empathetic when communicating with the stakeholders, and to avoid patronizing or minimizing their emotions, which could actually intensify them. The most effective communication will encompass best and worst-case scenarios, and lay out “next steps”, as needed. From the examples above:

  1. Empathize with the parent’s concern, and ask about the student’s arrival plans and communication strategy. Discuss the worst (notifying the consulate of a missing person) and best-case (maybe the student doesn’t have access to wi-fi yet) scenarios, and the timeline for each. Review the support you are able to provide (calling the host institution, notifying appropriate administrators on campus, etc.), and your communication plan moving forward.
  2. Empathize with the student’s frustration, and review their efforts to get pre-approval of the courses they planned to take. Discuss the worst (no credits can transfer) and best-case (all courses are able to transfer) scenarios, and the timeline for each. Review the transfer credit policy, the student’s responsibilities at this point (post-approvals, appeals, etc.), and your communication plan moving forward.
  3. Empathize with the faculty member’s desire to maintain control of the program’s itinerary and academic content, and identify your common concern for student safety. Discuss the worst (various health and safety incidents that are common on these kinds of programs) and best (how the policy helps the faculty member handle those situations during their program) scenarios. Reiterate the policy’s purpose (improving student safety) and its minimal or lack of impact on the faculty member’s priority (itinerary and academic content). Invite and respect the faculty member’s perspective, while establishing the necessity of the new policy.

By identifying the stakeholders, identifying the emotions involved, and working the issue, you’ll be able to more efficiently and effectively problem-solve, saving both time and energy.