What to say — and not to say — to an emotional student

Our Teaching Breakfast reading for explores ways to communicate with students about emotionally charged conversations.

What to Say–and not say–to an Emotional Student – The attached article from Harvard Business Publishing provides some tips for helping manage conversations with students on emotional subjects.  It has some good tips on what supportive language looks like and why some of the words we commonly use may seem dismissive.

What to Say—and Not Say—to an Emotional Student

profile 1Adapted from “How Supportive Leaders Approach Emotional Conversations” by Sarah Noll Wilson, an executive coach, facilitator, and researcher

How you handle emotional conversations with your students plays a big role in whether you’re creating an environment in which they can thrive. Many leaders, including educators, aren’t aware that some of the language they use is dismissive and may even be harmful to their students. They want to support these students and minimize their pain but, in turn, they end up minimizing the person.  

On the other hand, some leaders lack an empathetic approach because they feel the classroom (or workplace) is no place for emotions. These educators ignore the reality of their students’ mental health and how it’s affecting their learning, and they fail to harness the opportunities created through greater connection.  

Let’s dive into some of the dos and don’ts of engaging in emotionally charged conversations with students.    

What emotionally supportive language sounds like

Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t hide behind a shield of detachment when someone presents them with a struggle. They can regulate their own emotions and support others in doing the same.  

Here are six ways to be supportive when a student shares an emotional situation or challenge:

  1. Validate their experience. Saying something like, “I can see why this is exhausting,” shows you’re not only seeing their side, but also believing them.
  2. Seek to understand. Give space for your student to elaborate by showing curiosity. Saying, “Tell me more about that,” shows care, support, and interest.
  3. Encourage naming the need. Saying, “How can I best support you right now?” or, “What would be helpful right now?” in a heightened emotional moment can help a student determine and name what they need.
  4. Offer specific support. If a student doesn’t know what they need, seems afraid to ask, or is unsure of what options are available to them, try asking, “Would X be helpful?” (Perhaps “X” is an extension on an assignment, for example.) This may make it easier for them to say yes to accepting help.
  5. Invite perspective instead of prescribing a solution. If you’ve been through a similar experience as your student, don’t assume that what worked for you will work for them. This minimizes their needs and can leave them feeling unsupported. Instead of saying, “I’ve been there, here’s what you should do,” try, “Would it be helpful to hear what helped me in a similar situation?”
  6. Acknowledge and appreciate them. Thank your student for coming to you. Say, for example, “I can see this has been hard. I am here for you. Thank you for trusting me with this information.” This signals that the conversation is important and reinforces a sense of safety for future situations.  

What not to say in emotional conversations  

If a student is coming to you because they’re struggling, the last thing you want is for them to leave feeling unseen, unheard, and unsupported. Here are some examples of dismissive language to avoid:

  • Challenging phrasing. “What do you have to be sad about?” or, “You should be happy, not everyone has the same opportunities as you.”
  • Minimization. “Everyone feels like that sometimes,” or, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
  • Negation. “Hey, it could be worse,” or, “That’s not a real problem.”
  • Prescribing solutions. “You shouldn’t worry,” or, “You just need to get more sleep.”
  • Toxic positivity. “Just look at the bright side,” or, “Everything happens for a reason.” A positive perspective can be helpful but can become unproductive when it’s the only perspective offered.  

Providing support makes a difference

  As we continue to navigate new chapters of the pandemic, global conflict, racial injustice, divisiveness, and prolonged uncertainty, we should all strive to make things a little lighter.   Leaders often want to help soothe and remove discomfort. It’s not your job to heal, but to make it safe for students to share and to provide whatever support you can. It’s OK if you don’t know what to say—in fact, simply acknowledging that can be powerful, too.     READ THE FULL ARTICLE


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