After creating an environment conducive to an in-depth discussion you will be ready to gather information to guide your decisions regarding what should happen next with a participant situation. While some situations in which a support volunteer might get involved may initially seem complex, experienced support volunteers and staff have found that quite often a participant’s difficulty is not at all what it initially seems. The crux of the problem is usually not readily apparent and one runs the risk of reaching a premature conclusion when only part of the pertinent information has been collected. To ensure that all parties have been consulted and that various avenues have been explored, we use the following seven questions to clarify a problem:
- Exactly what is the problem?
- When does it occur? How long has it occurred?
- How do other people in the situation see it?
- Are there physical symptoms involved?
- What has the person tried to do about it? What does the person see as possible solutions?
- Are there major inconsistencies between feelings, content, and body posture?
- What does the person want to do versus what the person feels he or she should do?
For Liaisons >> Your use of this page is generally for problems defined as Mild or Moderate, see the Support Counseling for a Continuum of Issues. If you think the situation might be defined as serious or an emergency you should evaluate the need for assistance in providing support to the participant and host family. The AFS Area Team structure includes a Support Coordinator and possibly and AFS Support Coordinator that could be available in more serious situations. There may also be an Emergency Host Family in the team that the student may be able to move to if needed. The local volunteers are the team’s designated contact with National Support Staff in New York should it be necessary.
For Support Coordinators >> Generally the problems described in the article titled, Guidelines for Serious Support Situations require Support Coordinator involvement. Refer to that page for more serious and emergent situations.
Recommended best practice is to have two volunteers, usually the Liaison and the Support Coordinator attend meetings where there are extreme emotional, physical safety or legal concerns.
The Seven Clarifying Questions
1. What Exactly is the Problem?
Almost all problems that are presented as general turn out to be specific issues. For example, a participant saying “I feel out of place here” might in fact mean “I don’t understand what the family expects of me.” To draw out additional information, you might employ the techniques of open inquiry and/or minimal encouragement.
A participant’s choice of words in English often does not accurately describe his or her feelings. Words such as “lonely,” “depressed,” and “scared” have an enormous range of meanings, so it is important to find out exactly what they mean to the other person. As an example, you might ask, “Exactly what does it feel like to you when you are lonely?” or “Loneliness means one thing to me, but I’m not sure it means the same thing to you. Could you describe how you feel when you are lonely and how it’s affecting your life?”
2. When does it occur? How long has it occurred?
An important clue in clarifying the problem is finding out when problems occur. For example, does a person feel anxious all the time or only with certain people? Narrowing down the exact time of occurrence can help in finding the real breakdown. Many general problems turn out to be very specific communications difficulties that are more easily resolved once they are clarified.
Knowing how long a problem has occurred is equally helpful. If a participant, for example, reports that she has felt “lonely” or “anxious” for the last several years, it may be that you are faced with more than an adjustment issue.
In trying to clarify the issue you may want to ask: Have you felt this way before? Is there any similarity between the time you felt this way before and right now? What seems to be the common thread between all those different times during the day when you feel that way?
3. How do other people in the situation see it? Has it already been discussed with the relevant parties?
If you are dealing with a participant who is having difficulty with other people in the family, you should immediately try to arrange a time to find out how the family members are feeling. You will want their view to get a more complete picture. You might say to a participant, “This sounds like something I would like to talk to your host family ..."
You might choose to use role reversal in order to both gather additional information and help the people involved begin to see how others see it. Many volunteers find it helpful to ask questions such as, “What do you think your host mother would say if she were here and responding to what you’re saying to me right now?”
As the support volunteer, you will want to take care not to assume that any one version of an interpersonal problem is the “correct” one. This can be difficult or tempting to do if you know and care for the individual or have become close to the host family. If you feel that your objectivity is compromised, you might choose to have a more impartial volunteer handle the case. In sum, one will usually get different versions of a story from each party involved. Gathering all those pictures will help tremendously towards clarifying the issues which need attention.
4. Are there physical symptoms involved?
A small percentage of apparent emotional problems can be linked to underlying physical difficulties. If there are any complaints of physical symptoms, the participant should be examined by a physician. This also is necessary for the protection of you and the host family.
Be sure to ask for a detailed report on the person’s physical health and complaints. The participant may not have yet made any connection between her constant headaches and the problems s/he is describing to you, and therefore, will not voluntarily mention his or her physical symptoms to you.
5. What has the person tried to do about it? What does s/he see as possible solutions?
As personal dilemmas are best solved by the person having them, a support volunteer can find out what solutions the person has already tried and explore other possibilities by sorting out other options. In discovering how a participant has already tried to solve problems, you will gain insight into how realistic s/he is about the problem. It will also help to show how well s/he personally understands it and how committed s/he is to solving it.
You may find that there is work to do in the area of helping a participant take ownership of their situation. Helpful questions might include, “What can you do to improve the situation?”, “What do you see as the solution to the problem?” or "What have you already tried to do it to improve it?" Through effective questioning, you can help a participant move from feeling like a “helpless victim” to a person who can take responsibility for their actions.
6. Are there major inconsistencies between feelings, content, and body posture?
Seeing inconsistencies between what a person says and body language is one way to obtain clues for discovering the true nature of the situation. This is a question which you need to keep in mind at all times.
Examples of inconsistencies include, “I really want to learn how to get along with my host brother,” yet you notice that the participant is fidgeting or looking around the room when s/he says this. “I really feel terrible about what’s going on in this situation,” but the person is smiling or showing very little emotion to match the feeling of the words. If you feel like there may be an inconsistency, point out that behavior and ask the participant why they were exhibiting that behavior while talking about this particular topic as that will give you insight on whether that behavior is due to an inconsistency or a cultural tendency.
It is also important to acknowledge that our own cultural assumptions or familiarities can sometimes cause us to misinterpret the student’s behavior or demeanor. Keep in mind that culture plays a big role in the way students talk about issues. It might be helpful to refer to [link to communication styles in different cultures sheet] to learn more about how your student may be trying to communicate. For example, a smile may mean agreement, but it may mean nervousness.
7. Are there inconsistencies about what the person wants to do and what s/he feels s/he should do?
Many requests for your assistance will come in the form of “I feel like I ought to do this better,” or “I should appreciate what’s being done.” Working on ways that “oughts” and “shoulds” can be fulfilled is very rarely successful since they represent requests from a judgmental part of the self.
It can be helpful in clarifying the problem, to you and to the participants, by asking them what they want to do. It is important to know the difference between what someone feels they “should” to do and what they “want” to do. Many participants may be totally out of touch with their true feelings because of the overwhelming desire to do what is “right.” By looking at both sides of the issue, you can help clarify it.
In general, try to identify early in the process what someone wants as a solution to their problem. At the same time, one needs to show respect for a participant wanting to do what is “right,” as many cultures instill in their children a very strong sense of obligation.