Communicating With Ease

Communicating With Ease
Brian K Smith, Marlborough School
February 29, 2024

I entered the admission profession some twenty-five years ago, and what I’ve learned most over my tenure at three different independent schools is the importance of being a great listener. I post a lot of inspirational quotations online, but there’s a particular quotation that resonates most with me that I keep posted next to my computer in my office and on my desk at home. It’s from Dr. Maya Angelou, and it reads, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Even typing it gives me chills. But the reason why this holds importance in my life is that, at the moment of interaction, the person sitting or standing directly in front of me should always feel that they are the most important person. I’m about to be extremely vulnerable now, hold on!

As professionals, we consistently find ourselves pulled in many directions and it’s easy to lose focus. But we must remind ourselves why we entered this profession in the first place. Let’s keep in mind the importance of keeping students at the center of what we do. College admission evolves over time. In fact, it has evolved from when most of us went through the process. I recall talking with my “Guidance Counselor,” just once between both my junior and senior years. Interestingly enough, my parents never had a formal or informal meeting with my Guidance Counselor. The one time my Guidance Counselor and I did converse, she was of no help, didn’t listen, and acted uninterested but that’s a story for another day and possibly a different publication. Anyway, I digress, but what that brief interaction taught me was the importance of being present in the moment.

Most of us wear many hats at our respective institutions. We can easily lose focus on what is in front of us–the ebbs and flows in our work often cause our attention to shift. Admittedly, I do. After all, I’m human, not perfect and not always successful at giving everyone my undivided attention. So, as I make a concerted effort (New Year, New Me-insert eye roll) to become a better listener, more effective professional, and, in turn, a better College Counselor and friend, I offer a few things that I’m putting into practice as a way to help someone else, too. That someone else might just be you.

One of the things I am working on is being an “active listener.” We have to let students and others know and feel that they are the most important person during that moment of conversation. We can do that by acknowledging the conversation and giving them our undivided attention, demonstrating interest by excellent eye contact, nodding, and commenting when appropriate. However, we should avoid interrupting the flow of the conversation and wait until they have finished their thought before remarking. One thing I have always found helpful is to repeat what the person said just to make sure you understood their comment. This works extremely well and the student feels heard and seen.

The next tip is extremely difficult for me but it is definitely something I am working on. So many of my friends have commented to me in various situations, “fix your face!” No joke, I do not have a poker face and it is difficult for me to hide how I’m feeling about a situation or a conversation because you can see it written on my face. However, the conversation isn’t always unpleasant. My face could be mimicking my deep contemplation and thought in what the student is saying. When chatting with students, I try to be cognizant of my body language, as it could tell the student that I am disinterested in what they are saying or wish for the conversation to end. I must ensure that what my body is giving, is the message I want to convey. Like Beyonce exclaimed, “Give them Big Energy!”

Okay, just a couple of more nuggets: empathy and expectations. The college process can evoke many feelings at various points in the academic year. Add to that class, life, and just being a teenager. It is imperative that we should empathize with our students and explain to them that we understand what they are going through as we were once in their shoes. Yes, it probably looked and felt a little different but…you get the point. It has been very important to me that I try to give my students Grace! And I don’t mean little grace; you either have grace or you don’t. So, in recalling one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, “You can’t just pick up grace at the market. You must have grace!” I try to have much grace in dealing with students and their many situations and allow them grace when things become hurried. We never know what someone is going through, so treating them with kindness and gentleness goes an extremely long way. This is definitely a trait I’m consistently working on–especially while driving in LA. “BK, give that driver grace. They could have just earned their license.”

Lastly, because I know that you are rolling your eyes at me right now (Hey, give me grace!) Clear expectations are so very important when communicating with students. I joke often with my students and colleagues by saying, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” Maybe these classic movie and sitcom lines are stuck in my head. No? Oh wait, I live in Hollywood so it is okay. Anyway, be sure that you repeat yourself to the point of exhaustion when communicating with students and provide them clear direction prior to their departure from the conversation. I find often that students don’t always hear what I am saying but they always hear what they want me to say. So when I am having a difficult conversation, it is always helpful to follow it up with an email so the written message cannot be misinterpreted.

Honestly, great communication is truly an art form and some folks are good at it whereas others, like myself, need constant training but there’s nothing wrong with that. Admitting that you are not the best at something is okay. Communication is a continuous process of improvement and I am working to be better. It is something I am committed to and an aspect of my life that I take extremely seriously. I want people to always be kind, treat others with respect, and listen with intent. Most importantly, I want others to leave a conversation with me and utter, he saw me for me. I will never forget that. Cheers!


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Comments on "Communicating With Ease"

Comments 0-5 of 2

Christine Holladay - Monday, March 04, 2024

Another thing we're always working on in our office is demonstrating our presence through putting aside tech. Extra difficult when showing something on Common App, or working through a search on MAIA/Naviance/SCOIR etc., but an example 'dialing in' on the conversation at hand. Thanks for sharing with us, Brian!

Malika Lindsay - Friday, March 01, 2024

Thank you for being so insightful and vulnerable in this post. Everyone can learn from it!

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