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How can student reps communicate assertively?

STUDENT REP GUIDE

John Choi

John Choi

Whether you’re raising an issue on Unitu or in a meeting, communicating with staff can be scary! 

Assertive communication is the ability to express one’s positive or negative views in a direct, open and polite way, and is an essential skill that students and representatives should acquire to get staff listening to their concerns.

To speak assertively, students can use a handy DESO script, which draws on Bower and Bower’s book, Asserting Yourself. Although the DESO script was originally developed for use in the context of personal relationships (e.g. making requests to a friend), it can also be a helpful framework for raising feedback! This blog post aims to introduce students and representatives to the DESO script and how it can help them communicate issues with staff more effectively.

DESO stands for:

  • Describe
  • Express
  • Specify
  • Outcome

Describe

Step one, describe and define the problem that students are facing. It is important that you use neutral language when explaining the situation. You should also focus on the specific issue at hand, rather than making generic statements about your department’s attitudes or motives. 

Consider these two statements: “Students have found it difficult to navigate the Moodle pages of certain modules” and “The faculty has never considered digital accessibility to be an important issue”. The former statement is issue-specific and has a more neutral tone to it, so it is less likely to make the opposite party too defensive. With regards to the latter statement, even if you are correct, it will be difficult to prove that the faculty held such motives and staff members might spend more time refuting your statement than actually developing a solution.

Remember, the goal is to persuade staff to take action on an existing issue, not to attack them.

Express

Next, express how you and the student body feel about the issue. For instance, after defining the issue as a lack of feedback on assignments, you may say “Students feel that it is difficult to write high quality essays, as there is no feedback to review”. 

When expressing, you should emphasise on the positive experiences that you wish students were getting, rather than the negative experiences that students are currently going through. You may say “When seminar handouts are uploaded late, we don’t feel as though we can contribute to tutorials to the best of our ability”, as opposed to “We feel absolutely livid when our handouts are not uploaded on time”

Specify

This is the part where you make your suggestion on what staff can do to address the issue. It is important that you offer a solution, rather than just stating an issue. When framing the request, a couple of points should be kept in mind. For one, the request should be as specific as possible. Avoid generic statements like “The department should do more to help our careers”, and instead offer a focused solution, “The department could invite alumni members to share their experiences in applying for internships and/or organise termly CV-writing workshops.”

Moreover, the request should be framed in a positive manner. In other words, communicate what you want, not what you don’t want. “The library should have more electronic versions of textbooks and articles” is better than “Students should not be made to walk all the way to the library to obtain a physical copy”.

The desired solution should also be reasonable. Although we like to imagine that universities and their departments have endless time and resources, the reality is far from that (unfortunately). As such, the offered solution should have at least some slim chance of a compromise being reached. In another blog post, we discussed the importance of achievability when prioritising feedback.

Outcome

Finally, predict what might happen if the department does or does not take up your suggestion. How will the student experience be affected? Will student satisfaction increase? 

The proposed outcome should be mutually beneficial to both students and staff. Greater student satisfaction, whilst obviously beneficial for students, can lead to higher scores on the National Student Survey (NSS). Hence, any outcome should be framed as a win-win. 

You might also want to highlight what further action would students take if the department decides to go the other way. If the issue is significantly serious yet the department is reluctant to take action, students might write an open letter to senior management or file a formal complaint.

Tips to make DESO more effective

  • Prepare ahead! If you are to present in a meeting, try jotting down notes based on the DESO format before the meeting. 
  • Distinguish each issue. Each issue should have its own DESO script, so avoid lumping different issues together, “Students find issues X and Y and Z frustrating”.
  • Avoid exaggerations and absolutes, such as “the Faculty has never considered” or “staff have always been this way”.
  • Avoid ascribing motives to behaviours. In other words, don’t make premature guesses on why the university does/did something in a particular way. You might be right, but it would be difficult to prove that the university held such motives. For instance, “The faculty doesn’t want to implement Unitu because they don’t value feedback”. 
  • Avoid calling out the names of specific members of staff.
  • In a meeting, speak clearly, slowly and with confidence. Use body language that compliments your communication, sit straight and maintain eye contact. 

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Created on By Anish BaggaAnish Bagga

Quiz

Put the DESO script in practice!

1 / 4

Which Describe statement should begin your DESO script?

2 / 4

Which Express statement should come next?

3 / 4

How would you Specify the intended result?

4 / 4

Which Outcome statement should end your DESO script?

Your score is

The average score is 69%

0%

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About the author

John Choi

John Choi

John, Unitu's communication officer, is a final-year student at University College London (UCL). He was an elected Course Representative and then Lead Department Representative for the Faculty of Laws, and has won the UCL Students' Union Academic Rep of the Year Award 2019 and 2020.
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