Taking an awkward or difficult conversation with a student out of the office and walking around outside while you talk – the walk-and-talk – can ‘unlock’ the conversation.
I first recognised the power of the walk-and-talk when I was trying to draw out an autistic student at our student conference. Although he was passionate about his research and had plenty worth saying, he clearly found conversations stressful, and he avoided eye contact and often left the room. So, during a break, I invited him for a walk around the campus. We walked a while in silence, and he relaxed visibly. Eventually, he asked me a question, and our conversation began. In the course of 20 minutes or so, we established trust and resolved several issues that he had been too embarrassed to raise previously. And he returned to the conference with reduced anxiety – which in turn meant that he was able to have a few constructive conversations with other students.
Thereafter, I took the same approach with students who seemed reserved, uneasy, restless, or distracted. Sometimes students don’t know quite what they need to say, or they don’t know quite how to say it, or they’re embarrassed or not sure that what they need to say or ask is appropriate. The walk-and-talk often gives them time and stimulus to bring their issues into focus, so that they can express them.
Why does the walk-and-talk work so well?
- It doesn’t require eye contact.
- Silences are acceptable, providing time to think, during which both people are occupied by the activity.
- It takes place on neutral territory.
- It moves the discussion away from other ears.
- It requires a change of place (and change can be good when one is ‘stuck’).
- Unrelated distractions are built in, which provide natural interruptions and pacing (especially helpful if the conversation is tense).
- It includes movement and fresh air (which wellbeing advisors always endorse).
Once students are introduced to the possibility, they clearly find the walk-and-talk useful. It’s a positive transition when a student who has been squirming and inarticulate in a meeting says ‘Can we walk?’
Clearly, there are many research discussions that are easier in front of a white board, or where note-taking is easy and relevant materials are to hand. But, for conversations about issues, well-being, calibration, advice, and so on, the walk-in-talk can help.
Postscript: So what happens if people can’t walk, or there’s nowhere to go? Pause and consider an alternative that has as many of the same key characteristics as possible (e.g., doesn’t require eye contact, silences are acceptable, takes place on neutral territory). Perhaps coffee in a different setting where you sit side-by-side and have something else to look at (such as sitting in front of a big window with a beautiful scene, or sitting on the side and watching other people moving through an art exhibit), or perhaps ask for help with a mundane task that occupies eyes and hands but leaves space for conversation (such as stuffing envelopes).
 Although I never did manage to get him to call me by my first name, instead of ‘Professor’.
 Thanks for asking, Greg.