Talking to new people has always been a bit of a struggle for me. I’m prone to quietness, small talk just sort of fizzles out, and eye contact — except with those I know well — can be a chore. Knowing this about myself, I nevertheless took a job this past year as a writing tutor for UC Santa Barbara’s Campus Learning Assistance Services (CLAS) program. Three days a week, I would go to the campus writing lab for multiple 30-minute, one-on-one sessions with students who needed help with essays, creative writing assignments, cover letters, and any other form of writing you can imagine.
For the first few months, I was a nervous wreck when my shift came around. Having to talk with strangers — some of who were not native English speakers — while helping them to solve abstract writing problems was pretty overwhelming for me. What was I going to say? What if I couldn’t help them? What if they thought I was weird? I could write well enough, but I felt thoroughly uncomfortable on the job. That dreaded “freeze-up” moment always seemed to loom. But if I was to be of any help at all to these people, I knew I’d have to get over my introverted ways. I’d have to learn how to build a rapport with complete strangers — and quickly.
4 Tutoring Tips for Quiet Leaders
Throughout my year of tutoring, I developed a couple of methods and came to a couple of realizations that helped me in my instruction and, later, in my everyday interpersonal interactions.
1. Having a plan makes all the difference.
And by “plan,” I mean any structure for the interaction to come: a mental script, outline, or a rough idea of what you’re going to do or say. Whenever a new tutoring session would start, I would begin by introducing myself to the student and offering my hand for a handshake. Then I’d say something along the lines of, “Okay, so what are we working on today?” followed by, “What are your main issues with your paper?” That was it. Simple, yes, but important.
A plan offers a bit of comfort and predictability, and it gives you a nice, solid base off of which to improvise. It can help with perceptions of competence and confidence, too — both important traits for a leader or authority figure. I doubt anyone wants to be guided or instructed by someone who appears lost themselves. A loose conversational structure can reassure others that you know what you’re doing.
2. The emotional atmosphere matters.
Your attitude during that initial handshake with a new person will set a precedent for how the rest of the interaction will go. I always made an effort to meet new students with enthusiasm, despite many times feeling nervous, frustrated, or overwhelmed. At times it was a “fake it ’til you make it” thing. If my previous session had ended on an unconstructive note, or if my plan or ability to improvise had fallen short, then I did my best to rid of any ill feelings before my next session.
Kicking off another session with a bad attitude would just perpetuate a terrible cycle of frustration and futility. These students were trusting me to help them solve a problem. Fostering a positive emotional atmosphere was the first step to solving that problem. If you greet someone with frustration, anger, or apathy, then their willingness to learn and listen to you will plummet.
3. Sometimes, it’s best to be hands-off.
I realized this when it dawned on me that tutoring is just goal-driven conversation. Just as few people enjoy talking with that guy or girl who dominates the conversation, few students found our sessions productive when I just spent the entire 30 minutes pointing out mistakes and telling them what to fix. As time went on, I recognized a trend: sessions were better when I let the students set the pace. If I went on enjoying the sound of my own voice, then some important problems would get glossed over.
So instead, I opted for a question and answer kind of deal. “Why did you phrase this argument the way you did?” “What don’t you like about your thesis statement?” And from questions like these, I would get answers that would yield more questions; however, they also uncovered problems that I wouldn’t have noticed previously. Over time, I realized that no one really wants to talk with a know-it-all, and that type of personality can be a hindrance when you’re trying to help someone.
4. Conversation and tutoring are a bartering of vulnerabilities.
This was a personal realization that helped me get over my fear of judgment from the students I was helping. Though I was the tutor, I always felt like I was in a fragile position. I may say something offensive or ignorant by mistake; I may be unable to help them, which may make me look incompetent or helpless. I may stutter, and my voice may crack and my “R’s” might start to sound like “Ah’s” (a remnant of elementary school speech therapy). The students, in return, were showing me their writing. They were showing me the embodiment of their inner thoughts and feelings and saying, “Please help me make this better.”
Everyone is at least a little bit afraid of judgment, and as I saw it, the students and I were on an equal plane. We were both trying to improve, and we both might make some silly mistakes along the way. If we could meet, talk, and work toward a common goal in a setting where our weaknesses and fears were laid bare, then the whole interaction would be satisfying for the both of us.
One-on-one conversation isn’t the easiest thing in the world, nor is tutoring. Like all things, improving your ability to communicate with and help others will take time and a good deal of practice. The end result, though, will be immensely valuable both in the workplace and in your day-to-day life.