IDP Guide

Challenging Conversations with Residents


Working in residential life will inevitably involve challenging conversations with residents, some we may know well and some we may not know at all. While we at the Intergroup Dialogue Project don’t work in residential life, the worries about opening up challenging conversations are familiar. Because of this shared concern about challenging conversations, IDP has developed a list of guided reflection questions in consultation with West Campus House System leaders. We hope this guide will help you feel more equipped for challenging conversations with residents.

We offer the suggestions below to help you feel more prepared for challenging conversations with residents and to supplement (not replace) the protocols and procedures from training. Furthermore, these suggestions are malleable — we encourage you to adapt them. We imagine this not just being a resource to use individually but something to work through together with your AD/RHD before and after a resident conversation. We hope that it can guide reflection on  challenging conversations and your growth in your residential life position.

At the same time, we recognize that we can’t always anticipate when conversations with residents will be challenging. For this reason, we encourage you to have a general familiarity with information in this document and to return to it when you need a refresher.

Reflection Questions Before the Conversation

  • Which emotions are you feeling when you think about approaching this resident? How may these emotions impact the way you approach the resident?
    If you are feeling nervous about having a conversation with a resident about a potentially difficult topic, this is normal and reasonable. We suggest that you take the time to note which emotions are coming up, what might be motivating these emotions, and given these emotions, how you want to take care of yourself as you talk to the resident. If these emotions feel overwhelming, we urge you to contact your AD/RHD or an AD/RHD on call before interacting with the resident. Think also about what kind of emotional space you are prepared to hold in the conversation. How might you accommodate residents’ emotions and your own emotions if the conversation gets tense? What are some communication ground rules (e.g. one mic, or I statements) that may be helpful?
  • What challenges do you foresee during this conversation?
    We want to remind you that challenges are not only related to your personal readiness to have this conversation. If you are using Zoom, it could be the difficulties inherent in connecting with residents over a video call. Challenges could also arise because you or the resident is experiencing academic stress.Think also about the challenges (and opportunities) in talking to a group of residents versus talking to them 1:1. When speaking with a group, for example, it might be worth talking to some or all group members alone before talking to them in a group.
  • What potential opportunities do you have to make this student’s Cornell experience better?
    We also often find ourselves more adept at foreseeing challenges than opportunities, and we find it important to consider both. At its best, residential life can be a profound educational experience for residents, and the challenging conversations you have with residents can help residents feel less alone and provide important lessons on how to make sense of their own lives and relate to others.
  • How do your social identities, life experiences, and previous experiences with the resident impact the way you may be viewing this resident’s situation?
    The important clarification here is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about residents based on their perceived social identities or “predict” how the conversation will go. Rather, this question asks you to consider how your identities and experiences may be contributing to assumptions you are unintentionally making. For example, how may your own experiences with mental health be inflecting the way you are approaching a wellness check conversation? How may your gender identity and sexual orientation be influencing the way you think about talking to a resident about loud sex? How may your race and socioeconomic status impact the way you think about imposter syndrome?
    Because you are in positions of power over residents, it is important to be aware of your own assumptions and biases. Also, reflect on your own social identities. How may residents perceive you, based on both your position of institutional authority and your social identities?
  • Which relevant resources do you have available to you?
    Sometimes, it can be helpful to know who we can reach out to for help. Other staff members can provide their thoughts on the situation. Your AD or RHD can coach you through the conversation. We also encourage you to remember all the skills and knowledge from training (refreshers are available on Canvas) and to review potentially relevant resources at the university. For example, if you anticipate any kind of challenges related to communication, you can review LARA. If you know that the conversation touches upon a mental health concern, you can review the resources available at Cornell Health. You can also email the resident after the conversation with specific details about a resource if you don’t remember them during the conversation.
  • What is your goal for this conversation?
    In our experience, one conversation rarely fixes everything. Especially for residents who don’t know you well, the first conversation may be more about building trust rather than coming up with a solution. With your AD/RHD, it is important to come up with realistic goals for the conversation. It is also not usually your job to solve residents’ problems. You are responsible for helping them in this process, but in the end, we often cannot fix problems for residents (even if we might want to). We hope this may alleviate some of the pressure you may feel going into the conversation.

Reminders During the Conversation

  • Look for points of connection
    Each conversation you have with a resident is an opportunity to build connection and trust. There are many possibilities for finding points of connection even if the residents’ interests and experiences seem different from your own. You could be empathetic and open to the emotions of the resident. You could push yourself to imagine what it might be like to be in their position. The Listen and Affirm steps of the LARA handout will be especially helpful for finding ways to connect. It is difficult to underestimate the power of open, nonjudgmental listening.
  • Balance preparation with flexibility
    If you know in advance you’ll be having a challenging conversation with a resident, it is likely that you will be walking into the conversation with a fair amount of preparation. This preparation will likely help you feel more confident and equipped. Nonetheless, preparation may sometimes get in the way of being responsive or empathetic. It’s not uncommon that a certain surface behavior (e.g. standoffish behavior to a roommate) is actually indicative of something deeper. Don’t feel the need to let your preparation dictate the conversation.
  • Adapt your conversation goals
    It is also likely that as you talk to the resident, your goal for the conversation may change. You may have gone in with the goal of connecting the resident with academic resources but may discover that there is a more urgent mental health concern present. As with your preparation, don’t be too tight-fisted with your conversation goals, and be open to shifting your own conversation goals in response to the resident.
  • Be aware of what you and the resident are capable of in the moment
    What the resident brings up may be out of your control or be more responsibly handled by somebody else. You may not even know what you can do in the moment. As you talk to your resident about next steps, be honest about what you can and can’t do right then as well as what you know and don’t know. While this may cause some initial frustration (both for you and the resident), it is preferable to overpromising and underdelivering later. Instead of offering a solution, making a plan for follow up is an acceptable (and perhaps ideal) way to end a conversation. Make sure also to ask what the resident feels is within their capabilities after the conversation. Next steps that may feel doable for you may not feel that way for the resident.

Reflection Questions After the Conversation

  • What did you achieve in the conversation with the resident?
  • What do you think you did well during the conversation?
  • What do you think you would want to improve in future interactions with residents that are similar to this one?
  • What did you learn from this conversation that might be valuable for your colleagues to hear?
    We find that growth happens through intentional reflection, so we encourage you to take stock of how the conversation went. Very rarely is nothing achieved in a conversation, and very rarely is a conversation either a total success or total failure. Reflecting on what went well and what you want to improve can help you set realistic goals for your future interactions with residents. They can also be helpful for conversations about job performance with your AD/RHD.
  • Who do you need to talk to next? What do you need to share with them?
    It is important that in this position, you never feel like you have to worry alone. If you’re unsure about who you need to go to next, your AD/RHD (or the AD/RHD on call) can provide guidance.
  • What support do you need?
    Residents can sometimes be going through experiences that also deeply impact you. It is reasonable (and sometimes expected) that those supporting residents will also need support. Think about what support you need and advocate for your own needs as well.

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