I’m not one to shy away from challenging conversations with my students, but I have to admit, I have a lot of trouble coming up with an answer when a student asks me, “What do you think I should do?” There are so many possible answers to this question, and most of them feel completely irrelevant. This is because of one simple truth: I’m not them. I don’t share their priorities, challenges, experiences, or goals. It’s common for a student to ask how I think they should handle a major decision, when I’ve literally known them for less than an hour, even though there’s no way for me to know what their outcome would look like if they did what I would do.
So what do you do with it? I try to avoid the old standby of throwing the question back at them (“what do yooooouuuu think you should do?”). It’s supremely unhelpful, and usually leaves the student thinking that if they knew what they should do they wouldn’t be asking you. It’s a dismissal instead of a reflective redirection as intended. The easiest response, and one I’ll admit I’ve probably defaulted to more than once, is to just answer the question. What would I do if it was my choice to make? When in doubt, telling the truth is usually a reasonable solution, right? Another option is to list every possible alternative and wait patiently while they frantically try to figure out which one is least likely to blow up in their face. Guilty of that one, too.
All of these solutions miss a chance to go beyond what the student can do and to guide the student to explore what they really want and how to get it. By the time a student poses this question, they aren’t asking about compliance and policy. They want to know how to get a good outcome and they aren’t sure where to start.
They are trusting us to use our knowledge and experience to lead them toward that good outcome, and that can’t happen unless we help the student to insert the missing piece to our understanding of all of those options: their personal reality.
The first thing to do is, as one of my colleagues calls it, “fix your face.” I have the world’s worst poker face, and I know I’ve made a student or two nervous with my look of shock when they asked what I would do in their situation. It’s not always that they’re in a terrible spot; sometimes I’m just surprised to be asked! I also see the influence I yield when I answer that particular question as a great responsibility, and I don’t want to encourage the student down a path that may not be right for them. From the student side, though, it looks like I’m scared, and if I’m scared, they should be, too. When we make a surprised or amused face, the student doesn’t see “oh, I wasn’t expecting that.” They see, “I would probably give up and go home, but I’m not allowed to say that.” It’s ok to say you need a minute to think, and be sure that your face is reflecting that you’re giving their question genuine consideration, not trying to figure out how to get out of answering it.
For us student affairs folks, we often have knowledge and context that leads us toward a fairly clear answer to WWYD fairly early on. That gut response has value, but it’s not the end of the story. You inherently lack information that you need to answer the student’s question. To know how to answer WWYD, you need to know what the student is looking for. Do they want an exhaustive list of options? Help narrowing down the options they already know about? Hoping you’ll have a secret option X that’s better than what they’ve already found? To avoid decision making, and the responsibility for the outcome that comes with it? If you aren’t getting a good feel on what the student wants from you, start by asking, “Which options are you seriously considering at this point?” Even if you haven’t given any new information on what they technically can do yet, it will give you some insight into where they are in the decision making process, which will, in turn, tell you what they need from you to get to the next step.
Once you have an idea of the student’s current location in the decision making process, that’s when you can guide them through the decision making process. As an advisor, I have to strike an interesting balance. When students come in, they expect advice. It’s kind of in the name. But I’m not some sort of academic Carolyn Hax (as much as I would love that). I’m more like one of the senior advisors at the White House, and the student is the POTUS. As NACADA simply and eloquently puts it, “I advise. You decide.” Our role is to guide the student through the critical thinking process, and our advice comes in the form of being the voice behind them that says, “just so you know…” when they have a knowledge or reasoning gap during that process. Anyone on campus who helps students make informed decisions is part of the cabinet, so we all get a chance to help the student flex those crucial critical thinking skills that they’ll need to get past the WWYD hump.
Once a student has hit the point where they’re asking what you would do, you need to be listening at least twice as much as you’re talking.
The fact is, until you’ve gotten some crucial information, you don’t know what you would do. Start by asking some questions. “What’s your top priority in resolving this situation? What would your best case scenario result look like here? What did you expect to happen that hasn’t? What have you already tried?” You have the procedural information (what the student can do), and now you need the other piece of the puzzle, the situational information that tells you more about what the student should do. Let them walk through it until they can see where they’re standing and what their options are from their perspective, not yours.
By this point, you might be able to get away with “what do you think you should do?,” because the student has very likely started to form an idea of what makes sense for them by this point. If the student is still lost in the weeds, though, it may be time to take a step back. When we hit a standstill, I like to turn what the student has told me into a visual. We write down possible options, pros and cons, relevant information, and best and worst case scenarios. Then I send it home with them. If the student needs to sleep on it, let them. Set a time limit to follow up, and then do it. This has to be their decision, and sitting with discomfort for a little while is often the impetus for decision making. By sending them home with a starting place to consider their options and holding them accountable to actually make a decision, you give them the tools to truly decide rather than just reacting to the discomfort.
A final consideration: sometimes it is appropriate to tell the student what you think they should do. The caveat is that this should not be the first tool you pull out. The strategy of just answering the question is only appropriate after all of the other steps I listed above. After you’ve helped the student to assess the situation critically, your opinion is more likely to be given the appropriate weight. It’s just one data point, whereas when you lead with your opinion, the conversation becomes a persuasion, not an assessment. Once the student has shown a good grasp on how to approach the decision, only then you can start to have an opinion. You still can’t presume to know the entirety of the student’s situation, but you can make some if-then statements. “Since you listed X as your top priority, then I recommend that you consider Y. Because A is about to happen, I think you should at least think about B. When I was in a similar situation, I did this, and this is why that was right (or wasn’t right) for me.” Be careful with your wording. Never insinuate that your opinion is their only option (remember, doing nothing is also a choice-even if your opinion is that they should take a required action, they can still choose to do nothing), and be clear that this this their choice. Then be equally clear that you’ll back them in getting the best outcome they can, no matter what choice they make. This doesn’t just cover your bases in case their decision has unfavorable consequences, it also reinforces that they are in charge of their education. They have the power to make choices; it doesn’t lie with you or their instructors or some unknown administrator. They’re driving the bus. Start telling them this with the little decisions, and then, by the time they ask what you would do, they already know that it doesn’t matter.