Javaris L. Hammond, Florida Atlantic University
Advisors sometimes need to deliver bad news to students: students have academic petitions that get turned down, do not meet minimum GPAs for continuing in a program, and/or are underperforming in their classes. Similarly, doctors also often need to deliver bad news to patients and their families. In 2000, a group of oncologists devised SPIKES, a protocol for notifying patients of their cancer diagnosis (Walter et al., 2000). The SPIKES model stands for Set up, Perception, Invitation, Knowledge, Emotion and Summary (Robert, 2005). The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how advisors can use the SPIKES model as a framework for delivering bad news to students in a humane way.
(S) Setting up for the Appointment
When establishing an advisement appointment, the advisor should not only mentally but physically prepare to assist students by paying attention to their space, building a connection, carefully constructing the appointment time, and being organized and prepared ahead of time.
Space. The advisor tasked with delivering bad news should select a private space to meet with the students to ensure the student’s confidentiality. If the advisor’s office is not private, they should seek an alternative venue for the meeting such as a conference room or a colleague’s office. Advisors should position themselves in such a way that physical barriers, such as a desk, are reduced or eliminated. The advisor should consider having a box of tissues available in case the student becomes emotional.
Building a Connection. The advisor should warmly welcome and address the student by name. Throughout the meeting, the advisor should maintain steady eye contact with the student.
Appointment time. The advisor should schedule ample time to discuss the issue. Quickly sharing the bad news and then rushing the student out the door is not acceptable. It may be wise to schedule the meeting as the last appointment of the day in case additional time is needed with the student.
Organization and Preparedness. Prior to meeting with the student, the advisor should prepare by reading through the student’s file and becoming familiar with any relevant policies and procedures. The advisor should anticipate what questions the student might ask and have all essential data accessible.
The perception step involves discovering students’ level of awareness and assessing students’ view of the situation.
Discovery. This step involves asking students about their level of awareness of the issue. Sample questions might include: How are your classes going so far?; What is the biggest change you have faced in your courses to date?; or, Does the student know their GPA? Are they aware that their GPA has put them in jeopardy of being dropped from the major?
Realistic /Unrealistic view. It is important for the advisor to assess whether the student has a realistic or unrealistic understanding of the situation. The student’s perception of the situation will likely define how the rest of the conversation will proceed. For example, if the student knows that they did not perform well last semester and that they may need to change majors, the advisor may be able to shift the focus of the conversation to discussing other majors. However, if the student is acting as if this is new news, the advisor may need to help the student deal with the shock of the news. The advisor can tailor the conversation based on the student’s awareness of his/her academic situation.
The invitation phase involves the advisor asking the student for permission to discuss the situation. A sample question is, “Is this a good time to discuss your options?” It is possible that some students may be so shocked that they have been called into the office that they may need additional time to process the situation.
In the knowledge phase, the advisor explains the academic circumstances to the student using appropriate vocabulary and tone of voice. The advisor should notify the student that bad news is coming. For example, “Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news to share.” In the medical field, they have found that starting this way can lessen the shock and help patients process the news better (Walter et al., 2000). The advisor will want to avoid using acronyms or using language that the student might not understand when sharing the bad news. In addition, the advisor should use a non-judgmental tone when delivering the information. Sometimes, it is not what is being said, but how it is said.
Demonstrating empathy shows that the advisor cares about the student’s situation. Giving/receiving bad news may bring out different emotions in both the advisor and the student. It can be hard for advisors to observe the student in pain, since advisors generally enter the profession to help students. However, advisors need to guard against giving false hope to the student, because the student needs to have a realistic understanding of the situation.
Students may experience different emotions when they hear the bad news, emotions ranging from silence and disbelief to crying, denial, or anger. “In these situations, the advisor can offer support and solidarity to the student by making an empathic response (Walter et al., 2000, p. 306). An empathic response consists of three steps: acknowledge, ask exploratory questions, and validate the student’s emotions.
Acknowledge. Advisors should acknowledge the student’s feelings and emotions by carefully listening to what they are saying. Allow the student to express how they feel without interrupting or trying to make them feel better.
Ask Exploratory Questions. If the student is quiet, the advisor may want to ask questions to gauge how they are handling the bad news. Examples of exploratory questions include: What are you thinking?;
How do you feel now that I have shared this news?; and, Is there anything you want to say about the information I gave you?
Demonstrate/Validate the Student’s Feelings and Emotions. Giving a sympathetic response to the student’s emotions may help demonstrate that the advisor cares. Sample validating statements include: “It must be disappointing that your GPA is too low to get into the major you wanted,” or “Obviously, this news is very upsetting.” Roberts (2015, p. 141) wrote that, “Empathic responses help validate the student’s feelings and relate the response to the advisor. The advisor doesn’t have to experience the same feeling to provide an empathic response; it simply shows the perception of the student’s emotions.”
(S) Strategize and Summarize
The last step involves co-creating an action plan for the student to move forward. How students react to the news will determine the best way to proceed.
Emotional Students. Some students are too upset by the news to make future plans, so it may be best to schedule a follow-up appointment to give the student time to process the news. The follow-up appointment should be scheduled during the visit and the advisor should follow up if the student does not show up for the subsequent appointment.
Accepting Students. For students eager to move forward and devise a plan, the advisor should be prepared to discuss their options. For example, the advisor working with the student who must change majors should be aware of which majors the student would be eligible to transfer into.
Unsure Students. If a student seems lost and unable to decide, the advisor may want to refer students to the appropriate offices, such as the career center, the counseling center, etc.
Follow up. Regardless of the student’s emotional state, the advisor needs to confirm that the student understands the next steps that need to be taken. In most cases, a follow-up appointment should be scheduled with the advisor to ensure that the student follows through on the commitments discussed.
Although delivering bad news to students is never fun, advisors should be prepared to handle challenging conversations. By using the SPIKES model, advisors can have a framework for delivering bad news in a compassionate way.
Javaris L. Hammond, BS
Coordinator, Bachelor of Science in Nursing Advising Services
Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing
Florida Atlantic University
Robert, B. A. (2005). Breaking bad news: the S-P-I-K-E-S strategy. Community Oncology, 2(2), 138-142.
Walter, B. F., Robert, B., Renato, L., Gary, G., Estela, B., & Andrzej, K. P. (2000). SPIKES—A Six-Step Protocol for Delivering Bad News: Application to the Patient with Cancer. The Oncologist, 5(4), 302-311. http://dx.doi.org/10.1634/theoncologist.5-4-302
Cite this article using APA style as: Hammond, J.L. (2017, March). How to give bad news. Academic Advising Today, 40(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]