Student coaching has become an integral part of higher education, with different social evolutions causing a sharp increase in demand for student coaching in recent years. Higher education was flexibilised with more individual study programmes, there was the abrupt switch to 100% distance learning ... and such changes always cause pressure and stress.

Coaching means assisting people with a practical or organisational challenge (the task), while an emotional component (the person) may play a role – as long as it's a secondary one. Coaching is therefore based on a development question, with the task and the person going hand in hand

As a coach, you should adopt an inquisitive attitude to help the student consider possible solutions. Start the conversation by exploring and identifying the problem, and then move towards an exploration of potential solutions.

As a coach, you should also be aware of your own frame of reference. This is the lens through which you look at the student, which is coloured by your own experiences, norms and values. Your way of coaching will also depend on that frame of reference. It will have an impact on your input during the conversation, the questions you ask, the ideas you put forward, the way you perceive the situation, and so on.

The basis of any conversation is listening, summarising and digging deeper (Donders, 2016). Below are seven verbal conversation techniques that can help you with this.​

1. Giving the other person space

It's important to let the student finish before you start talking. This way, you create space for the student to come forward with their story, to feel welcomed and acknowledged by you.

2. Using the power of silence

Silence doesn't always have to be uncomfortable. It's important to slow down the conversation regularly. This gives you both the opportunity to let things sink in. Your conversation partner will tend to break the silence with useful information. In other words, silence can provoke meaningful reactions.

3. Asking summarising questions

Summarising what has been said so far ensures that you always come back to the essence of what the other person is trying to say. When you present your summary as a question, you give your conversation partner the chance to confirm or correct it, so that you're both on the same page. Be sure to summarise regularly during, and especially at the end of the conversation.

4. Reflecting without judging

Reflecting without judging means putting yourself in the position of your conversation partner. As a person, you can never truly be judgement-free. Forming judgements is only human. However, what you can do as an active listener is take a step back and see your judgements for what they are: judgements, not absolute truths.

5. Avoiding leading questions

As educators, we often have the tendency to guide students in a certain direction with (well-intentioned) advice. We may find ourselves asking leading questions, with the desired answer already apparent in the question. This is not conducive to effective communication, as the student will be inclined to give 'the socially acceptable' answer rather than say what they truly mean.

6. Asking open-ended questions

During a coaching conversation, it can be very useful to ask open-ended questions, so the student gets to say what they feel is important. As these questions can't be answered with 'yes' or 'no', they're well suited to probing for more information. Open-ended questions start with words or phrases like 'what', 'how', 'when', ‘why’, or 'to what extent'.

7. Digging deeper

In order to get a better understanding of the student's situation, it's important to dig deeper with follow-up questions. This also shows your interest and commitment. Even if you have the impression that the student doesn't go into details, it's important to keep asking questions. If a student remains rather passive, you should ask yourself whether you've been asking enough open-ended questions to dig deeper.

If you notice that a line is being crossed – in either direction – or if you lack the appropriate expertise to provide the guidance needed, it's best to refer the student to a colleague with special expertise. 

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