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Helpful ways of talking

Being organised oneself – which means being clear A row of students using computersabout personal boundaries – is a prerequisite to good caring.  That is, looking after oneself is concomitant with looking after others.  Reasonable limits on times during which one is available are not just good for the Tutor; they model a method of self-organisation for the tutee.  It is essential that tutees take responsibility for their own work and for their own decisions.  It is usually much easier for a Tutor or anyone else to do the work for a student or to tell them what to do and what decision is wise.  The danger is that the more helpful one tries to be, the less the tutee learns from personal struggle.  If the tutee learns about a way of going about a task, similar future tasks will not create problems.  If all the tutee learns is the solution, similar future tasks will always be a problem and require yet more support time from Tutors or others.

Being oneself and personal style

Another very important aspect of helping is showing respect for others – for their autonomy, for the assumption that they have tried their best within their current framework, for the assumption that they have or can develop the resources needed, for enhancing the tutee's natural way of doing things rather than imposing our way.  We do this best when we unashamedly 'are ourselves' with them, without pretence and treat them as equals. 

Content and process

When dealing with others, one needs to be constantly aware of the distinction between content and process in conversations; what is said and the way it is said.  The latter is particularly important to the Tutor when students are disclosing feelings and values.


We are capable of judgements about others from the moment we first meet them and usually do make judgements.  As we in reality know little about them, the judgement often says more about us than the other.  It helps to be aware of how our backgrounds, attitudes and values do this.  No tutee will feel comfortable discussing a problem – or exploring whether there is a problem – with a Tutor who is quick to deliver a value judgement in words or attitude.  The simple solution is to demonstrate our wish to look out with their eyes, through listening to them.

Understanding and empathy

The more our responses reflect accurate understanding and acceptance, the more the tutee feels relief.  This is not just emotional discharge, it is the relief of knowing that the dilemma is understandable, that one is not crazy or stupid or of such little value that no one cares.  To struggle with a tutee, attempting to understand them as if you are them, hopefully also reduces their sense of emotional isolation.  This empathic responding, utterly dependent on active listening, is one of the most important facets of the helping process.

Paraphrasing and mirroring

We have difficulty understanding ourselves, much less understanding others and then conveying that understanding to them.  Given that this is so, helping a tutee reflect upon, research, elaborate, try out for size different ways of looking at a problem, is often very valuable for them.  If a Tutor paraphrases what has been said, as if holding up a mirror, a tutee can check words as symbols for experience against felt reality.

Questions – open and closed

When facts and emotions intertwine as in Tutor/tutee encounters it can sometimes be helpful to vary the style of question between:

  •  Closed questions – "How many A-Levels do you have?" ("Four")
  •  Half open questions – "How did you come to do History A-Level?" ("My father insisted on it")
  •  Open questions – "Tell me about your A-Levels, Fred".  ("Yeah, well, that was a fiasco. My Dad's always on about the war and how we are all so undisciplined nowadays, and so ungrateful for everything, and so he said I had to do history to understand it all. I just forced myself to do it and did well but couldn't stand it any more.  That's why I'm doing Art History – a compromise really. Yeah, well, maybe I'll be a rich art dealer....").

Open-ended questions often disclose much more than facts and in addition tend to facilitate reflection so the tutee can 'correct' what is said. 


Towards the end of a Tutor/tutee conversation it can be valuable to follow exploration of the options with a summary or plan of possible actions. It can also be useful to write this down in case of future appeals, etc. Suggestions for 'homework' can also help.

Telling bad news

Very occasionally it might fall to a Tutor to take a phone call from a tutee's home and then find the tutee to pass on news of the sudden and unexpected death of a relative etc.  There is no 'right' way to do this but it should be done in a private and contained environment, where the student will not feel exposed by their own reactions.  Professionals tend to go for the simple and direct method: "Fred, could I have a word in private? ... I'm sorry to have to tell you your father died this morning.  Your mother telephoned me and I've been looking for you...".

Those who have previous experience of the death of a close other will immediately grasp the significance of this and may well react with tears, etc.  Those who have no previous experience often will not grasp the significance and though rationally accepting it 'up in the head' may well not react emotionally until the funeral or seeing the effect on others.  Often bad news is met with initial disbelief. The Tutor should bear in mind that much of what is said will not be heard.  The tutee will still be grappling with the initial news and much of the detail will probably need repeating over and over.

The tutee may well benefit from having their Tutor (or someone else known to them, if the Tutor is unable to stay) available for the hour or two after the initial shock to help digest the news, think over the implications for who else needs to be told etc. and pack a bag and make travel arrangements.

There are of course cultural and religious differences in reactions, and what is considered socially appropriate in relation to grief and mourning rituals.  Chaplains and Counsellors can often be helpful with data in this respect.

As far as the wider duties of a Tutor are concerned, it may be worth remembering that few friends of younger tutees will have experience of death and so older people become especially important as supporters.  It will often be in the months which follow, rather than the immediate aftermath of the death, that a tutee will most need to talk.  The grief process can take up to two years to go through its various phases.  Often, graduating without a much loved parent as witness to the ceremony can be the final difficulty and make for a very emotional time both then and in the lead up to final examinations.  The way in which a Tutor has handled the initial telling of bad news will at least in part determine whether the tutee can avail of the support of the Tutor in those 'final' days.

Acknowledgements are due to Counselling and Wellbeing.

Things to do now

Remember that your Senior Tutor is there to support you in any situation that you might find difficult.

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