By Cydney Alexis and Billie Schwartz –
One night in Philadelphia, my sister Billie and I were dining with friends, and the topic of eye contact came up. While she was able to maintain steady eye contact with most of us at the table, a couple of us noticed our eyes darting to the side when she and others talked, hesitant to hold a gaze. She–a pediatric counseling psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia–noted that as a counselor, she’s very aware not only of the eye contact she’s making, but also when others look away. It’s part of her trade to utilize eye contact as a means of communicating with her clients and to attend to their body language as a means of understanding their comfort and presence in a session. I asked my sister if eye contact came easily to her. “No!” she emphatically replied. She told me she had received training in this skill over many years as a graduate student, by being observed in sessions, by watching herself on videotape, through training exercises, and via supervisor feedback.
I learned from her that night what I had suspected: that I was not good at holding eye contact. It made me squirm. I often felt conscious of how long I was holding a gaze and felt a strong compulsion to look away. Some of this was about comfort on my end, but it was also about the presumed comfort of those whom I looked at: I always assumed holding a gaze too long could make others uncomfortable, too. After that night, I started noticing how other people use eye contact to indicate interest and demonstrate attentiveness. When talking with one of my sister’s friends, I marveled at how the direct, friendly eye contact she made while leaning in to listen made me feel attended to and encouraged to speak. I wondered how consciously eye contact and similar skills are employed in writing center work, and over many conversations with Billie, a workshop came to fruition. Billie delivered this workshop to my Writing Center staff at Kansas State University, and it was so popular that she repeated it through an organization I direct for cross-campus subject-area tutors called Totally Tutoring.
Writing centers often resist metaphorizing tutoring to fields such as business, hospitality, and counseling, and writing centers resist metaphors such as tutors as counselors or tutees as clients. After all, these are distinct disciplines, and tutees are not patients or clients, per se. Additionally, counselors receive training imperative for helping their clients in both everyday and life-threatening situations. Despite these and many other concrete and important differences, centers can learn a lot from fields such as counseling psychology that work one-to-one with others and that are characterized by work that—similar to writing center work—involves listening, empathizing, and helping students to learn and utilize tools beyond the individual session. After all, one goal shared by our disciplines is the same: to encourage students/clients to feel comfortable and return!
While center staff are specialists in topics related to writing studies such as asking questions, understanding writing as a process, and thinking through challenges like writer’s block, we are not specialists in some areas that are critically important to our work, such as the non-verbal communication skills psychology students hone in their training. Such skills don’t come naturally to counselors, as I indicate above; rather, counselors receive ample training as graduate students, and they practice and hone these skills throughout their careers.
In this blog post, my sister and I share key skills and activities2 from the workshops Billie delivered at K-State. We would like to begin by offering three caveats. First, Billie and I know we’re writing for a mixed audience on Another Word of directors, administrators, tutors, Fellows, front desk staff, and others. Throughout, we’re addressing administrators as our main audience both to make the writing act easier and because we’re providing this information for training and professional development purposes. We hope it’s useful to tutors, Fellows, front desk staff, and many others too, though! We try to refer to “staff” instead of “tutors” when possible, in order to include the important work besides tutoring performed in centers. Because the readership is mixed, we also recognize that the concepts we discuss will be more familiar to some than others. We’ve emphasized basic counseling skills, in order to provide foundational concepts that undergird the more complicated work a counselor does later in their practice. It’s important to Billie that I emphasize, though, that she has received nearly a dozen years of training in many of the skills we’re outlining. So, they might sound easy, but they have to be practiced vigorously and with self-awareness and feedback over time. Second, it’s hard to replicate the work of a workshop in a post. It was amazing for us to witness how the material came alive when Billie delivered the workshop and to see how engaged the tutors were in the concepts and activities. So while they might read a little basic or familiar on the page, we encourage you to try the activities and to watch how much tutors learn when they struggle and have fun with practicing non-verbal communication skills. Third, throughout, Billie shares examples from her counseling practice (that I narrate for her). Through these stories, we are not trying to draw a close or problematic parallel between the two disciplines. Rather, we’re using her experiences to animate concepts, and center staff can think about how these concepts apply to and transform in the writing center context. Readers will notice that I shift between “I” and “we,” sometimes more gracefully than others, to fit our shifting rhetorical purpose.
Before we begin, I’d like to share that Billie was herself a writing center tutor, at her college alma mater, Simmons. As a former tutor, and of course as my sister, she understands the nature of writing center work and we collaboratively designed this workshop and wrote this post with centers’ special needs in mind. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory postulates that learning, especially complex learning, happens mainly through observation and modeling (or imitating) behavior. After we discuss each skill or concept, then, we’ve included an activity so that staff can practice enacting the concepts in training.
We’ll begin with the genesis of this workshop, eye contact. A goal of a listening professional, someone who’s trained to listen and give feedback, is to sit and observe what might be a struggle for someone and help them come to realizations on their own, without feeling judged, maligned, misunderstood, or misheard. This foundation, how to be a sort of tabula rasa or gentle backboard, is practiced over and over. Part of what counselors do while they are listening, without necessarily contributing, is utilize eye contact.
Eye contact may seem neutral, but it can communicate a lot of ideas, feelings, and actions, and its use can have implications. It can convey interest, power, and emotion, and it can direct action. The potential meanings of eye contact shift in different contexts. For example, from a counseling perspective, eye contact is not meant to be authoritative or authoritarian. It’s not shy, either. It’s used to gently encourage communication and honesty on the part of the client. The counselor is trained not to have expectations, other than helping the client to open up, be honest, and talk. A teacher, on the other hand, is often expected to have eyes on their students at all times, to monitor the activities that are going on in a classroom. Students expect this attention and sometimes request it, as do supervisors. A supervisor observing a teacher, for example, will notice when a teacher does not monitor cell phone or Internet use during class or when a teacher does not notice an imbalance between who talks in a classroom. In a sense, a teacher might demonstrate a broader range of emotions through eye contact, conveying encouragement, disappointment, a request for action (such as talking), or power. There is a power differential between counselor and client, of course. And there is a power differential between teacher and student. What’s different in the two contexts, arguably, are expectations around how this power is expressed and negotiated (through grading, for instance).
Tutoring and other center work likely falls somewhere in-between these two examples, as it is not a strictly teaching situation, and it is also more collaborative in the co-production of meaning than counseling. Through one of the below activities, center staff can think about how eye contact might play out in the center context.
Activity: For one (timed) minute, make eye contact with another staff member, while both of you
are silent. Your goal, like a counselor’s, is not to challenge the other person to look away or to “win;” this is not a game of “chicken,” but rather an activity of waiting and encouraging the other to hold the gaze.
Activity: This one-minute activity uses eye contact and active listening–listening while being fully
present, but not interjecting, asking follow-up questions, not even giving verbal feedback
such as “uh huh.” Silence can be a powerful motivator. In training, Billie had to be silent when someone else was silent, without filling the gap by talking; this encourages the other to speak. Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaches tutors and teachers to wait 20 seconds after asking a question before filling the gap with their own speech; it takes that long for students to get comfortable and ask a tough question. (This is also a good activity: time 20-30 seconds for your staff, so that they can feel how long they should wait before interjecting when a tutee is thinking.) It’s hard to be fully present while sitting silently and listening to another person, without thinking of what you’re going to say next or how you’ll tie the point you want to make to what the person is saying now. For this activity, the staff should group in pairs. One person should talk for one minute, about anything (telling a story about a recent event or conversation is a good topic). While that person is talking, the listener should utilize empathic and encouraging eye contact to try and keep their partner comfortable talking, without interjecting!
Activity: Have staff discuss how eye contact might overlap and differ in counseling, tutoring, and other contexts (such as interpersonal ones). What diverse purposes or meanings does eye contact take on in different contexts? How might inter- and intra-cultural norms influence eye contact practices?
Attending refers to the physical behavior of the body while listening and paying attention to another. This can including smiling, leaning forward, making eye contact, gesturing, and nodding. The goals of attending are to convey to tutees that you’re interested in and open to what they’re saying. It’s likely easier to recognize disengagement in another (though be careful–sometimes the ‘signs’ of disengagement can be misread); it’s much harder to notice what signals our own bodies are giving. Some body language to note that could convey disinterest or distraction are: leaning back, rocking, or swiveling in your chair; looking at the clock; checking your phone; staring off into the distance, sitting in an unprofessional way, rushing sentences with gestures, looking bored– these are all signs that you’re not present.
Attending is bi-directional, too–tutors can attend to tutee body language to see when students are engaged or demonstrating behavior that intimates either that they’re thinking or have withdrawn from the session. If you notice the person you’re working with is fidgeting or can’t stop shaking their legs, those can be non-verbal cues of boredom or resistance (they can also be signs of discomfort or of personal issues going on in the person’s life). Most of my staff dismisses as unproductive and rude Newkirk’s classic advice to mimic students’ body language when they’re showing signs of disengagement such as crossing their arms; instead, they and we suggest indicating interest as you normally would, while attending closely, both to your tutee’s non-verbal cues and perhaps even more importantly to your own.
Activity: A great way to have staff practice attending skills is to have them observe a tutoring or front desk interaction session (or, in a staff meeting, a digital recording of a session or front desk interaction or a fishbowl, during which tutors act out a tutoring session), noting the participants’ attending behaviors. What signs (movements, gestures, body language) indicate listening? How would you characterize the participants’ eye contact? What are other non-verbal features that let the observer know that someone’s mind may be preoccupied?
Activity: Think about a recent interaction you’ve had with someone. How did you know they were paying attention? When you converse with your significant other, friends, family members, or teachers, how can you tell if they’re attending? Another possibility for this activity is–before a staff meeting–to have staff pay attention, for a day, to their own non-verbal communication with others and to bring a list of observations.
As writers themselves, most tutors have practiced paraphrasing. In the writing context, paraphrasing comes with expectations: the writer’s goal is to represent an author’s ideas in a fastidious way, while using their own words. In counseling, paraphrasing is employed to demonstrate attention to the client’s feelings or ideas by using alternative words or phrases, with the goal of restating the information in a nonjudgmental way. It is a way to let the client know what they said was both heard and understood and to correct misunderstandings. When paraphrasing with a client, counselors don’t have the benefit of pen, paper, and time: they have to do it while actively listening and with the “author” present. There’s another dimension to this: counselors can utilize paraphrase to help the client hear their own words in a new way or come to a realization on their own (again, without judgment). In this situation, clients are able to dissociate their own thoughts from themselves and hear them as someone else’s words–there’s a power in hearing what ideas sound like.
The goal is for the counselor, or tutor, to say, “I’m hearing you say that . . . .” Then the client or tutee is given the opportunity to respond with, “Exactly!” or “No, that’s not what I meant at all.” In this practice, you can hear resonances with classic writing center methods that encourage the tutee to take the lead in the production of meaning. The tutor is facilitator, guiding the exchange. This tool can be utilized to clarify ideas the tutor finds controversial or troubling as well; by repeating them back, the tutee has time to think about the ideas expressed and clarify their intended meaning. Often, students don’t realize how controversial their ideas sound or they go for provocation, not understanding the impact. Repeating words back can provide reflective distance. You can use this to clarify your understanding of a writer’s skillfully articulated points, too: “In this paragraph, I hear you saying that you think privatizing education can lead to benefits for students. Is that right?” This action has the ability to generate trust and the buy-in you seek as a tutor, which a tutee expresses as, “Right. You got it.”
Activity: Ask tutors to pair up and have one tutor tell a story (if they have trouble thinking of something, they can talk about a recent movie or television show they watched). The listener’s job is to let the speaker speak, without interjecting, and then paraphrase the speaker’s main idea. The speaker then gets a chance to either confirm the listener heard the speaker’s meaning clearly or clarify. Then they switch and repeat.
Asking Open-Ended and Probing Questions
This type of question-asking is no doubt familiar to readers of Another Word, who likely have been trained in question-asking. However, I’ve found that tutors often struggle to ask meaningful, thoughtful questions, as asking them can often feel like hiding the ball from students who, after all, have come to the center for assistance. More often than not, we tend to use closed-ended questions that yield a simple “yes” or “no.” These questions may not lead to productive conversations or openness to learning. Open-ended and probing questions, on the other hand, invite more thoughtful responses. These can be used to gather information, illicit discussion, and increase accuracy. To give an example in the counseling context, Billie often works with parents who ask their children questions such as, “Would you like to put away your toy?” She has to train parents that if the answer could be “no,” they are setting themselves up for a conflict. Instead of, “Do you have any concerns about your child’s social development?” Billie asks, “Tell me what first grade was like for your son” or “What are his relationships like with his teachers?” A relevant activity is to simply catch every time you ask a question that could have a one-word answer, like “yes” or “no,” and revise to an open-ended question. For example, instead of, “Do you have any other ideas about topics for the paper?” Try “What other ideas for topics do you have?”
A caveat: There are times when it is important to ask a closed-ended question to see what a person knows. One of the most important ideas Brad Hughes taught me is “You never know what someone knows until you ask.” Billie provides this example from the counseling context: if a family comes in with a diagnosis of ADHD for their child, she asks the caregiver, “What do these letters mean to you? Do you know what they stand for?” If they say “no,” she says, “Great. Let me start by explaining more about ADHD so that we’re on the same page.” When she’s done, she checks for understanding, asking, “Does that make sense? Do you have any questions?”
In the tutoring context, there’s a value in asking, “Do you know what a thesis statement is? Would an explanation be helpful?” When dealing with a skill deficit, the tutor’s job is to face it directly. You can also ask, though, “Tell me what you already know about thesis statements.” This question allows the tutee to share their expertise and, in more pop cultural terms, allows the tutor to avoid the type of man- or woman-splaining that can be so frustrating (by asking, you learn, in Brad’s terms, “what the person already knows” instead of assuming).
Activity: Have your tutors (individually or in groups) generate a list of closed-ended questions related to the writing process. Then, as a group, turn them into open-ended and probing questions and discuss the implications of both sets.
Empathy is an important skill for many aspects of human functioning, and a tutoring relationship is no exception. Displaying empathy means taking a moment to place yourself in another’s situation while remaining as objective as possible. The hardest part of this is listening with open ears. Your goal is to help people to get from point A to point B. Let’s say someone has difficulty with a math problem; they’re not picking up a basic rule or a way to solve the problem that is taught in class. The first entry point might be to review the rule. But if the tutor is listening to the context clues, they might hear about other things going on in the tutee’s life that either hamper or encourage learning. How do you get out of your own way and see what is there before you assume that you know how to fix the problem? Empathizing requires the listener to avoid subjectivity and judgment, with the aim of promoting sensitivity and understanding.
Billie gives the example that if a family that comes to see her about potty training, she’s going to make sure the family has taken the first step of ruling out medical factors: there’s no bladder problem, for instance. The parents’ first instinct might be to blame the child; they might feel the child is not following rules, trying to ruin their lives, etc. Billie’s automatic thought is to think it’s a parenting issue, but she has to wait and guide the parents carefully to the point of realizing that it’s not anyone’s fault, and there are minor tweaks they can do to achieve the desired result. Even though she is able to diagnose this in the first 15 minutes relatively confidently, if she did, they would think she’s pretentious or a bad doctor. She has to wait and use her clients’ own words to get them to understand her perspective from their own position. That’s not a basic skill. That’s taken her a decade of practicing and learning. One last point: empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Feeling sorry for a student who cannot understand a math problem and helping to problem-solve barriers towards learning are two different approaches to the same problem. One activity to try to promote empathetic listening is using one of the following sentence starters when talking to others (Alber 2017):
● I am impressed by the way you…
● I look forward to seeing how you put X into practice because…
● I appreciate your…
In the tutoring (and front desk) context, empathy can be demonstrated, then, by reserving judgment; by holding back on immediately providing your opinions and thoughts and guiding the writer to a place of understanding; and by giving positive feedback that encourages the tutee to return.
Activity: Staff can pair up and share an example of a time when someone either demonstrated empathy for them that they appreciated or a time when they needed empathy, but instead felt judged. Depending on the staff’s comfort levels with such a group discussion, they can then share their insights with the group, if not their stories.
Reflective listening is the most involved skill as it brings together many of the aforementioned skills into one action. Reflective listening involves repeating what a tutee has said (paraphrasing), while displaying empathy, and reflecting back verbal and nonverbal feelings (attending). If you can master this, you pretty much have them all! Examples of how to bring reflective listening into the tutoring session can be as simple as saying “So you feel (while learning forward, making eye contact, and nodding your head) . . . .” or “It sounds like” or “What I hear you saying is (with an empathetic tone and open hand gesture) . . . .” with a goal of ensuring that the listener has truly understood what the tutee has said. You’re not just listening with opening ears and not saying anything, but also reflecting back what you’ve heard: “What I’m hearing is, there’s a history of struggle with understanding math, but it’s also complicated. Did I get that right?” “It sounds like this is hard for you,” with the goal of the speaker saying, “Exactly, that’s it” or “No, that’s not quite right–math wasn’t always hard for me, it’s just this particular statistics class.” We’ve included an elaborate reflective listening activity at the end of the post.
We’d like to mention two last skills/concepts that aren’t exactly non-verbal communication skills, per se, but are important in the execution of some of the above practices.
This skill is developing clinical intuition. Billie and I talked about how when we were new in our respective fields, we both experienced the difficulty of practicing self-restraint during sessions. Here’s an example. One of Billie’s first patients was a dad whose child was diagnosed with ADHD, was a picky eater, and had trouble with organization. She got so excited with potential and viable solutions that she kept him 40 minutes after his doctor’s appointment. He had already been at the hospital for two hours and she gave him a dozen strategies, because, she thought, “This is easy! These are little things he can successfully work on!” He never came back to see her. He was overwhelmed. Although he nodded and smiled and asked great questions, he wasn’t ready, as her supervisors told her in the session debrief. She had to learn to be more methodical in her treatment plan. As a student, that mistake made sense. The more that a counselor knows, the less they should have to practice “restraint,” and the more they should be able to intuitively know what a family can realistically handle (Billie wants to emphasize that this skill has taken her over a decade to master). I had a similar experience during one tutoring session when I was a writing tutor at UW-Madison. A student and I had an amazingly fun session, generating ideas and excitement about her project. When she returned to see me two weeks later, I asked her how the paper went. She said, “Oh, when I got home that night I forgot everything you said, so I just wrote the paper based on my original ideas.” She hadn’t been ready, and my excitement inhibited my ability to assess where she was at.
To recap, in the beginning, implementing a lot of these strategies might feel like exercising self-restraint, like you’re holding back from everything you want to say. That’s our trade, though. Anyone can learn the steps for a treatment plan, but the way in which a counselor gets a family to engage or the way in which a tutor facilitates the tutee’s learning is what gets people to return.
When counseling or tutoring, our own identities are enacted, negotiated, performed, and even challenged. Billie points out, though, that as a counselor, her goal is to be a resource for someone so that they feel so comfortable with her that she can take all of their sensitive thoughts, the good and bad, and not emote on them. It’s not uncommon for a family to feel close to her based on the fact that they feel comfortable telling her something important and to then make assumptions about her personal life. But they don’t know anything about her, really. They’re able to project thoughts, feelings, and desires and feel connected and understood. But to Billie, the accuracy of their assumptions isn’t important, if that makes sense. It’s more that she’s made them feel comfortable enough that they feel comfortable talking to her. In the center context, a situation like this can have various implications. If a tutee routinely asks personal questions or seems to be bonding with the tutor over perceived similarities, the tutor might be able to capitalize on these feelings to promote trust and deep talk. Tutees also come to sessions with assumptions (such as when tutees think center tutors actually know the rules of English grammar). The tutor might not address the accuracy of these feelings at all. Or the tutor might wish to redirect the tutee out of discomfort or fear that this type of personal talk is distracting to the purpose at hand. There’s not one right answer, but situations like these are great to talk through with other staff. Of course, tutor identities come into play, too, such as when a person says something mean or upsetting in a paper (or counseling session). It’s important to remember that there is a person beside or in front of us who has an identity of their own that they are also negotiating in a session or front desk interaction. As a result, we have to avoid making assumptions and handle interactions with care, knowing, as I once read in an expository writing handbook, that most people feel that their ideas and positions are on the side of reason, goodness, and justice. Staff can decide what kind of dialogue is important around these topics.
Additional Exercises You Can Do with Your Staff
Self-awareness refers to being able to understand one’s own personal beliefs and how they may interfere or interact with reality. Often in a tutor/tutee or other dynamic relationship, personal biases can influence interactions and perceptions of others, thereby affecting the quality of the provided service. By becoming more self-aware, tutors will have the capability to reduce bias in problem solving and teaching, ensure their values and beliefs do not interfere with interactions, encourage equitability and empathy, and promote empowerment. Here are some questions to ask your staff when assessing for self-awareness:
1. What are some examples of personal issues or experiences that may influence how you
interact with your tutees/those who walk into the center?
2. How can you prevent these issues from negatively influencing your work?
Reflective/Active Listening Exercise
The importance of attending and reflective listening have already been discussed; below is an activity created to help practice these skills. In a dyad, identify one person as the speaker and one as the listener. For a total of four minutes, the listener’s only job is to “actively listen,” using all the skills learned in this post, while the speaker discusses something frustrating that happened in the last week. The listener is not allowed to say anything more than two or three syllables long to keep the speaker talking (i.e. “Uh-huh,” “Really!?” “Tell me more”). When the four minutes is up, each person should answer the below questions. Then have each person take the other role and repeat.
1. How were you able to keep the conversation going using only encouraging body
language and a word or two? What barriers did you encounter?
1. What made you feel heard and understood? What were the body clues?
We want to emphasize again that although it’s easy to talk about skills and write exercises, mastery can take decades, as well as supervision and feedback. Some common misperceptions about counseling may apply to the center context as well, such as the following:
1. The more questions we ask, the more information/knowledge we’ll obtain.
2. Center staff have all of the answers.
3. Center staff always give good advice.
4. Positive thinking is rational thinking. Positivity should not be used at the expense of honesty (if a paper is unquestioningly problematic, not speaking to the assignment, or a mess, using praise or encouragement as a strategy is likely not the answer).
This post is not meant to treat non-verbal communication as uni-directional, then, or as the answer to a session’s problems. Rather, we have outlined tools to place in your kit and hone over time, as you would practice verbal communication or your own writing.
And to give you and your centers some positive encouragement to practice these skills, consider my example: several years after the initial discussion I had with Billie and our friends, I am much better at making eye contact. Until I have to read a draft of a post such as this one to a center tutor or talk about the topic of eye contact directly, I rarely notice I’m performing this skill.
1The authors would like to thank K-State tutors Lauren and Molly for their feedback on drafts of this post, the K-State tutors (Brittani, Cailin, Lauren, and Ian) and students who generously agreed to be photographed, and photographer and K-State graduate student Tiffany Roney. 2Gladding (2000) discusses five skills that can assist counselors: attending, paraphrasing, open-ended and probing questions, empathizing, and reflective listening.
Bandura, Albert. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Gladding, Samuel T. Counseling: A Comprehensive Profession. 4th ed., Upper Saddle River, Merrill Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Newkirk, Thomas. “The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference.” The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Edited by Robert W. Barnett and Jacob S. Blumner. Allyn and Bacon, 2001, 302-15.