“Knowing your students” needs to mean building vulnerability, not playing ice breakers

Photo by John Fornander on Unsplash

How does someone get good results giving a massage where the hands never actually touch the body?

This is the question Dr. Carl Marci became interested in as a medical student at Harvard in a class watching alternative medicine practitioners. 

He found the effects were coming from the deep connection these doctors built with patients.

The doctors would start by taking a really long patient history, really getting to know the patient. They would sit and listen and nod, and it turned out this nom-medical act of building trust, and building connection, led to hard-to-believe results and dedicated patients.

Do you have a really long history on any of your students? And if you do know things about a student, is it because they told you? Or is it because people talked about it in the staff room, or someone gave you a little “piece of advice” about that student?

“Know your students!”

“Knowing our students.” Educators pride themselves on this. We can trace almost any problem back to this. Kids acting out? “Just make sure you really get to know them.” No one respects you? “You need to get to know your students.” You are dying? “Make sure you know your students first!”

Okay…but HOW?

Besides playing get to know you games and asking about their favourite XYZ. Because that is information, but we want vulnerability.

Vulnerability matters more than your fear of it

Vulnerability is the glue of relationships. Vulnerability is the key ingredient to making deep, authentic connections. Vulnerability is a requirement for trust, belonging, creativity, love, and a whole host of other things you need in a classroom. 

So if we’re “getting to know” our students, this is what we are really talking about. 

Not just Get to Know You games. 

Connection, not assorted facts. 

We need to get at their fears, ambitions, motivations. But how? How do you have those deep conversations without anyone feeling exposed and with everyone being honest?


Dr. Marci’s work provides further insight into the process of building vulnerability and connections.

Understand that generating vulnerability is more about the receiver than the sender. When someone reveals something personal, the listener needs to pick up on that, and show vulnerability in turn. This sends the signal that, ‘Okay, we are safe here. Mistakes and weaknesses are okay here. We can trust each other.’ Closeness increases.

How to use vulnerability to build connections 

Concordances are the specific moments when vulnerability happens between two people and closeness increases. Concordances were what bonded the alternative medicine practitioners and patients that Dr. Marci observed.

Listening makes concordances happen. They occur when one person reacts in an authentic way to the emotion being projected by the other person. This can only happen when one person is talking, and the other is fully listening. The more concordances, the closer two people feel.

Luckily for us, the feelings of closeness happen all at once, not gradually over time, so one good vulnerability conversation can set the tone for the rest of the relationship. 

Building closeness is like levelling up in a video game: we were in this world, but now we’re going to play like this.

How to use listening to build vulnerability

Could you sit down with each student at the start of the year and really talk? How would you ensure that they answered, and answered honestly? 

Approach it like a doctor. We are honest with doctors because we believe they can help us, they care about us, and them knowing about our history is important for their work. Show the student that you can help them, that knowing this information is important to your work, because it is.

Some of these conversations would be difficult, yes, but as Tim Ferris says,

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

Have the courage to at least give students the opportunity to talk to you. Because – don’t forget – building that connection is vital to the work you are doing.