How to Deal with Student Complaints: The Gap Between Stimulus and Response

As higher education faculty and administrators, we receive a lot of complaints.  Students, parents, supervisors, colleagues… everyone has complaints.  Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about student complaints and how to deal with student complaints.  When should we respond?  How?  In the age of student consumerism (my tuition pays your salary!), the issue of how to respond to student complaints becomes even trickier.  Fundamentally, I believe that just because someone complains doesn’t mean they have a complaint.  The challenge is how do we determine when a situation needs responding to and what response is appropriate.

Photo credit: Chris Goldberg

A few years ago, I took a group of doctoral students on a study abroad trip.  There had been a few logistic problems, but nothing too serious.  Yet, a few students had complained.  I listened to their concerns, but ultimately there wasn’t anything to be done about it.  They felt better just knowing someone listened to them.

Toward the end of the trip, we arrived at our hotel for the evening.  Okay, honestly, hotel is being generous.  It was pretty much a hostel.  I was helping with the check-in process at the front desk when I started hearing whispers among the group.  After a few minutes, a student pulled me aside and said we had a problem.  The accommodations weren’t sufficient.  

I knew this student wasn’t a complainer.  He had pulled me aside and directly told me his concerns.  I told him to give me a few minutes to look into the issue and figure something out.  When I investigated, he was right.  The rooms were dirty, too small, and not what we had been promised as part of our tour package.

I sent the students out for dinner and worked through the problems with our local contact.  Ultimately, we moved to another hotel that was even nicer than the others that we had stayed in during the trip.

This experience has always stuck with me for a couple of reasons.  First, I appreciated how the student approached me to let me know there was a concern.  Second, I am thankful that I took a few minutes to investigate myself and then made a decision.

I am often quick to rush to a judgement before pausing.

Steven Covey in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” writes, “There is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space.”

When thinking about how to deal with student complaints, ensuring that we have a gap is key.  Even if we ultimately decide students are right and action is needed, the pause provides space and an opportunity to slow down and think through a problem.  The gap provides a chance to decide and as faculty and administrators we can’t give up our power to choose the right course of action.

I know I am quick to respond.  It is part of who I am.  But knowing this, I try to force myself to take advantage of a gap.

My kindergartner is struggling with this issue.  He gets mad or frustrated by something and immediately responds.  In many ways, I believe learning to slow down and pause after a stimulus event is a sign of maturity.  Not just personal maturity as is the case with my son, but professional maturity in the case of dealing with student complaints.

I don’t respond to emails immediately.  With some people, I have a self-imposed buffer zone, I won’t respond to them within six hours.  I try to give myself a chance to cool down before responding in haste.  I talk to a friend or go for a walk.  I try not to get defensive about my own work or those of colleagues who may be criticized.  Defensiveness is often an initial reaction, but doesn’t help anyone move forward.

Ultimately, our success and even our happiness are tied to the gap between the stimulus and our response.  What strategies do you use to make sure you leave a gap?  I’d love to hear more about how you try to create opportunities to pause when figuring out how to deal with student complaints.

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