Kindness in handling student complaints

Steph Talliss-Foster and Becca Shipperley explain how OIAHE has worked to incorporate kindness in handling student complaints

Steph Talliss-Foster is a Senior Assistant Adjudicator at the Office for the Independent Adjudicator

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Becca Shipperley is an Assistant Adjudicator at the Office for the Independent Adjudicator

Kindness at the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is not a new concept, but in recent years we have started exploring it more explicitly.

As an ombuds organisation, the OIA has at its heart a recognition that sometimes things go wrong and, when they do, students need an independent organisation to consider their complaint fairly. But how people experience our process and how they feel about it is also important, and this is where kindness comes in.

We began looking at the value of kindness in our work back in 2019 following a presentation by Jennifer Wallace of Carnegie (UK) Trust on kindness in public policy. Underpinning the presentation was Julia Unwin’s report “Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind spot in public policy”. We thought about where our own “blind spots” might be, and identified various areas of focus, such as our casework communication, and recognising and promoting kind practice.

Not long after, the pandemic struck and we all found ourselves trying to adjust to a new way of living. Isolation, fear and anxiety increased as people grieved for lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost ways of life. Yet that sense of a shared experience brought communities together and encouraged us to look for ways to support each other. Conversations about mental health, emotional stability and coping were at the forefront of daily lives.

The terrible death of George Floyd then sent shockwaves around the world. Conversations turned to privilege, equality and the importance of communicating and understanding.

This changing and changed global landscape gave further impetus to our exploration of kindness. As we asked ourselves what we as an organisation and as individuals should be learning, what we could and should do differently, being kind seemed even more of an imperative. But where to start?

Kindness is disruptive

Unwin’s report says:

Kindness is disruptive. That may seem a surprising thing to say. Kindness is often associated with an avoidance of conflict. But kindness comes from solidarity, and solidarity, in the modern world, demands a significant shift of power. Solidarity manifests itself in many ways.

If kindness is power, then what power do we all have? What’s the privilege I have and how does it show itself? Sometimes it’s not about the privilege we have but the power we are seen to have. In the work we do, one aspect of our privilege is knowing how the process works. Very few of the students we work with (and not all of those we liaise with in providers) will be familiar with – or comfortable with – our process, or with the language we use to describe it. Some students are uncomfortable with any formal process.

If students see complaint processes as impersonal, then we need to make them more human. Being personable or pleasant is not at odds with being professional. If we have empathy in our approach, it will shine through. When we interact with students we need to think about the circumstances that led them to complain, and their experience of making a complaint to us, and remember how little they are likely to know about us and our process. Then we begin to empathise with their overall experience.

In practical terms, this means trying to overcome the perception that we will be bureaucratic, faceless and impersonal, and taking time to explain our processes, exploring how we might be able to adapt them. It means not being afraid of making the human connection, making time to listen, and trying to understand someone’s experience.

Listening to the story

It also means remembering that thinking we understand someone’s experience can be another example of privilege. It is important to allow people to be their own storyteller. Unwin says:

The relational lexicon includes story telling. It is not afraid of anecdote and knows that how you describe something is often as important as what you say. And in any movement for change, the way in which the story is told will rely on the story telling skills of the communicator – wherever they are. But communication is also about the art of listening and listening acutely both to what is said and what is not said.

A lot of our contact is by email. We try to provide clear information using straightforward language and to explain next steps and timescales, for the benefit of everyone involved in our process. None of us likes a standard response, but the same information presented in a way that is personalised is more likely to be read and understood. But emails can look like another example of power being exercised: me telling you what I think you need to know or (worse) what you want to say. Any room for questions is often restricted and sometimes students may not want to put a question in an email for fear it is too trivial. A phone conversation is often better than an email. Calls allow scope for questions (no matter how trivial they may seem), and an opportunity to listen. Calls don’t work for all students, though. Some prefer the security of written communication, especially where English is not their first language.

“Am I being kind?”

The ongoing effects of the pandemic and the pressures on today’s students and their mental health and wellbeing mean that there’s never been a more important time to embrace kindness and embed it in our work. We try to be flexible in our processes and less formal in our communications. We’ve been using reminders as prompts: “Am I being kind?”, “Am I allowing the story to be told?”, “How will what I say be perceived?” “What am I doing – and could I be doing it differently?” “Am I being present for this call – have I turned off distractions?”

It’s important to remember that being kind doesn’t always mean giving someone everything they are asking for. For us, that means considering what is reasonable as well as what the person wants. Being kind also means listening to people but not necessarily agreeing with them, setting appropriate boundaries, and trying to make sure people have realistic expectations. It also means finding a balance so that by being kind to one person you are not inadvertently being unkind to others – whether that is other students who have complained to us, people in providers or our own colleagues.

Some things we try will work and some won’t. We try to celebrate our successes and learn from every experience. No one size fits all, but by listening and allowing others to tell their story, we can get better at being kind.

Compassion takes energy and active listening can be tiring. An important part of being kind is being kind to yourself. That means being self-aware enough to know when you need to take time out, as well as supporting colleagues when they are struggling.

Why it matters

Making kindness an integral part of what we do is a work in progress, but we know from what people, and especially students using our service, tell us that it can make a real difference:

… Makes one feel normal and like a human being again […] to feel like a normal person when I live in a world right now where someone like me is not see as normal…. makes me love life all over again. Thank you for your kind appreciated service. (from a student on what they liked best about our service)

One response to “Kindness in handling student complaints

  1. Managing the OIA relationship during a pandemic has been very challenging and I cannot say that I have seen much evidence of a kindness agenda. A couple of interactions with the OIA have been pretty upsetting. Assistant Adjudicators do not seem to have the time to listen like they did in the past. The balance between quality of decision making and hitting KPIs is a bit out of kilter at the moment. I prefer the pre-covid OIA where the Ombudsman still took ages to reach a decision, but you could guarantee it would be well reasoned and a high-quality decision.

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