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Lauren Haley, Plymouth State University

Lauren Haley.jpg“Emotional intelligence” (EI), the ability to understand and act on personal emotions and the emotions of others, has become a popular subject in corporate America, spanning from hiring practices to professional development initiatives.  Surprisingly, it has not yet been measured empirically in the academic advising arena, though many of the best practices in academic advising seem to require a significant aptitude for emotional intelligence. It may even be that emotional intelligence itself mediates the relational component of advising.

Habley’s Framework

Habley (1987) suggests that quality advising necessitates inclusion of three major components: the informational, the conceptual, and the relational.  While informational knowledge and conceptual understandings are necessary, alone, they are insufficient in providing quality advising services.  Communication skills and interpersonal approaches such as listening, interviewing, rapport-building, self-disclosure, and referral directly influence advisor-advisee interactions and are critical to establishing positive advising relationships (Habley, 1987; NACADA, 2005).  Gordon-Starks (2015) defines academic advising as “relationship-building” (p. 1) in which the academic advisor acts as a mentor, guide, and positive influence throughout the academic journeys of his or her students.  These relationships are the necessary third component of quality advising, and it is this component that is possibly mediated by EI. 

Emotional Intelligence

Successful engagement in strong communication, problem-solving, and rapport-building skills – those critical to the relational component of advising – requires emotional intelligence. Without it, advising is little more than authoritative information dissemination. Although EI has been defined and measured in a variety of ways, the elements with closest application to academic advising include the following: emotional perception, emotional motivation, emotional regulation, empathy, and social skills.

Emotional Perception.  According to Mayer and Salovey (1997), one element of EI refers to the ability to accurately identify feelings and emotions in one’s self and others, to discriminate between different emotional expressions, and to express emotions accurately.  Goleman (1995) refers to this element as “self-awareness” characterized by a recognition and understanding of one’s moods, emotions, and preferences.  Jordan (2015) explains that this self-awareness is necessary for effective communication in the advising relationship.

As Goleman (2004) notes, like anyone else, advisors experience a range of emotions and sometimes may be challenged in preventing their emotional states from negatively affecting their behavior.  Those with self-awareness can be honest with themselves and can recognize the ways in which their emotional and physical states impact their work.  In her application of self-awareness to effective communication skills, Jordan (2015) describes how physical states and behaviors are equally important to the emotional.  For example, if an advisor can recognize that she is hungry or ill, she can remedy the situation before it negatively impacts an advising interaction.  Jordan suggests that a self-aware advisor can avoid engaging in negative behaviors such as checking the time or fidgeting impatiently while meeting with a student, and instead, might display more positive physical mannerisms such as engaging in eye contact, smiling, and nodding.

Emotional Motivation.  Another branch of EI, referred to by Mayer and Salovey (1997) as “emotional facilitation of thinking,” is more integrated than emotional perception and involves capitalizing on emotions to help one prioritize, problem-solve, and think.  Academic advising, while thoroughly rewarding work, can also be mentally exhausting: an advising caseload may range from a handful of students to several hundred, the hours and days are fluid to accommodate students’ needs, and the job responsibilities are widely varied.  Academic advisors often maintain moderate standing and incomes and therefore must find motivation in their careers that extends beyond money and prestige.  A high level of organizational commitment and a propensity to pursue one’s work and goals with energy and persistence, even in the face of failure, are hallmarks of Goleman’s (1995) motivation component in emotional intelligence (Beard, 2012; Goleman, 1995).

Proactive advising, originally coined by Glennen (1975) as intrusive advising, is an academic advising approach involving advisor-initiated interactions, particularly to those students at-risk of attrition.  It is intended to support and guide students towards resources before they encounter difficulties (Cate & Miller, 2015).  As noted by Earl (1988), this practice is action-oriented and intentional.  It takes time and energy and can arguably be implemented effectively only when the advisor is intrinsically motivated to initiate the outreach and make connections.  This proactive approach might involve monitoring students’ grades, connecting students with academic and social supports, and/or engaging with students during campus activities and community events (Varney, 2007).  In short, it is providing students with the information and support they need before those students even request it.  In their retention research, Heisserer and Parette (2002) conclude that students who feel cared for by a significant representative of the institution are more likely to be retained and academically successful.  To make those connections and fulfill that important role in the student’s life, the advisor must have the drive and the motivation to make a difference.

Emotional Expression: Empathy and Social Skills.  The argument could easily be made that in order to be an effective academic advisor, one must genuinely care about and interact with other people.  To do so requires empathy and social skills—two significant elements of emotional intelligence.

  • Empathy.  Gordon-Starks (2015) reminds us that advising is a helping profession that involves relationship building.  It is a way of communicating to students that a trusted member of the institution understands their needs and is concerned about their well-being (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011).  According to Goleman (1995), this important responsibility requires empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of others and to treat them according to their emotional reactions.  It is the cornerstone of positive advising relationships.  When students feel that their advisors are empathic to their needs and development, especially during times of stress, authentic and trustful advising relationships may develop (Heikkila & McGill, 2015; Hybels & Weaver, 2009; Sims, 2013). 
  • Social skills.  The ability to find common ground, to establish rapport, to manage relationships, and to build networks is critical to advising effectiveness.  As human beings, we have developed many ways of communicating our thoughts and feelings with others, both verbally and nonverbally, and proficiency in communication is critical to effective advising.  For example, if an advisor avoids eye contact, slouches, and speaks timidly, he or she would likely have a very different relationship with advisees than one who maintains appropriate eye contact, smiles warmly, and speaks in a confident tone.  Good interpersonal and communication skills underlie Schlossberg’s (1989) theory of mattering and marginality in student retention.  Based on the premise that disengagement leads to attrition, an advisor’s employment of social skills instead sends a message to students that they matter (Roufs, 2015).  

Emotional Regulation.  Mayer and Salovey (1997) refer to the most complex branch of EI as a “reflective regulation” of emotions (in one’s self and in others) which works to promote intellectual and emotional growth.  They point out that the emotional management process involves an openness to feelings, a reflective monitoring and utility assessment of emotions, and the ability to consciously engage or detach from an emotion based on such assessment.  Goleman (2004) describes emotional regulation as the component which “frees us from being prisoners of our feelings” (p. 5).  In academic advising, the ability to suspend judgment, and to think before acting or responding, can be the difference between developing rapport and building a rift in an advising relationship.  It is key to one of the more widely recognized approaches in advising for encouraging positive student change: motivational interviewing.

Motivational interviewing, a practice that Miller (1983) originally drew from counseling practices, is “person-centered”, and is used to enhance a student’s intrinsic motivation to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence.  Critical to this approach is the advisor’s ability to elicit change from the student, rather than to impose it.  It is a partnership characterized by open-ended questions rather than direct persuasion.  Miller and Rollnick (2002) expand on this concept in pointing out that the advisor must accommodate the student’s resistance, help develop discrepancies between behaviors and goals, and fulfill a supportive roll in the student’s self-efficacy.  To do so, the advisor must remain respectful, empathetic, and quiet.  Without the ability to self-regulate, the advisor may have difficulty in suspending judgment, may become argumentative or confrontational, and consequently may undermine any hope of reducing resistance and inspiring change within the student.


It is known that emotional intelligence is critical to conflict resolution, positive leadership, and relationship-building, and it seems as though many of the best practices in academic advising, such as motivational interviewing and proactive advising, require a significant aptitude for EI as well.  Advisors have a responsibility to hold a high level of emotional intelligence in order to establish and maintain positive relationships with their students.  The literature on self-awareness, self-regulation, and positive communication is vast; one can certainly refine and strengthen his or her skills with practice.  In the same vein, it may be of utmost importance for institutions of higher education to ensure, either through hiring decisions or professional development initiatives, that the academic advisors they have entrusted with the maintenance of positive relationships with their students, are emotionally intelligent advisors.

Lauren Haley
Academic and Career Counselor
Center for Student Success/University Studies
Plymouth State University
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Haley, L. (2016, March). The role of emotional intelligence in quality academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 39(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2016 March 39:1


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