Peace of Mind in the Writing Center: Putting the Client at Ease
Putting the client at ease begins at the very onset of the session. Introduce yourself to him. Take an interest in him; get to know him as much as possible. Discuss his classes or his interests, especially as they pertain to the paper being presented. This is especially helpful if you two have something in common--classes, majors, professors, hobbies, interests, etc. This helps to bring you to a closer level with the client. The tutor is still the authority in the session, but he is no longer the stern evaluator or grader that the instructor will be for the paper. The tutor can now have a better two-sided conversation about the paper, rather than the client simply timidly listening to a critique.
Continue this interested discussion throughout the reading of the paper. It is okay to pause and discuss a piece you find particularly interesting or well written. If you compliment his writing, the client will often perk up and feel more comfortable about the session. If you take an interest in a topic or comment then the client will be likely to open up more about the topic. He will elaborate more on the discussion, showing his knowledge or research. This can be extremely beneficial for both the tutor and the client. When the client opens up and discusses the topic further, then the tutor can sometimes get a better understanding of what has been written and allows for suggestions to elaborate on the writing. A passionate writer is a confident writer.
It is an even greater challenge when the client is a professional who feels that his writing is not something to be challenged. That is how this type of client will take a critique--as a challenge not just to his writing, but to his professionalism as well. It is especially important to ease this type of client. The more errors found by the tutor, the more confrontational or aloof the client may become. This can be offset by compliments and shows of interest. The client is assured of his overall writing abilities and is better able to see suggestions or critiques as more constructional.
I can use a shortcoming of my own to show how this type of professional client should be handled with more care. A school principal who is also a doctoral student at the university where I tutor came in with a book review. I could tell she was uncomfortable from the start of the session when, seeing that this was one of the longest book reviews that I had ever seen, I tried to break the ice by jokingly saying, "Wow, it's a long one." Instead of laughing, she gave me a glare and proclaimed, Okay." This managed to put me ill-at-ease, which lasted throughout the session. I found her not unresponsive but rather negatively responsive. Every comment or suggestion I made seemed to be met with disdain, making me as the tutor, the authority, less and less comfortable. Of course, as a result, I felt as if I did not do my best as a tutor and as if she did not care about my suggestions. It did not feel like a productive session.
When I saw a few days later that another tutor had the same client for the same paper, I recalled my problems with the session. This particular tutor told me that she started out having the same problems with the client. However, she began solidly complimenting this client on her writing abilities and her strong knowledge of the topic as it pertains to her professional career; she told me that the client noticeably became happier and opened up more. As a result, the client also became much more responsive to the suggestions by the tutor.
Showing an interest in the client's topic and complimenting his writing certainly puts the client at ease, making him more receptive to constructional criticism. As a result of the increased responsiveness, the tutor is put more at ease as well, making for a better, more productive session. This not only helps develop a stronger, continued relationship between the client and the writing center but also promotes the ultimate goal of a writing center -- to create stronger, more comfortable, more confident writers.