I sat on a University hearings board: here are some 'rules for life' from my time as judge and jury

Written by Olly Shearman, 23.

Have you ever wondered what it is like to make life-changing decisions about someone else’s future?

For the sake of context, in 2018 I was elected as Vice President for Voice at the University of Surrey Students’ Union. One of the many responsibilities I undertook was to sit on university hearings as a full panel member to decide on things like disciplinary measures, formal complaints, academic appeals and support to practice/study. In simple terms, if a student did something really bad (for example), I would be part of the body that decided on an outcome.

Yes you are reading that correctly, from the ages of 21 – 23 I had an equal say on everything up to and including expelling a student from university.

This is obviously not a common position for a twenty something student to find themselves in. Therefore, within this short article, I hope to share with you a few ‘rules for life’ that I learnt from fulfilling this role that I hope you can apply to all aspects of your professional and social life.

Honesty really is the best policy – with other people and yourself

Being a young twentysomething year old today is a stressful ordeal. You’re most likely broke, your future prospects are more uncertain than ever, who knows how much student debt you’ve accumulated and ‘once in a generation’ events seem to happen every week. When all of these variables contribute to greater stress and anxiety, telling a lie is equivalent to adding 10kg of weight onto your own mind.

It is not always easy to tell when a student is lying to you. However, sitting at a hearing is a stressful ordeal; the pressure alone is sure to expose holes in a charlatan’s defence.

In this situation, and in every aspect of your life, honesty really is the best policy. In the eyes of a panel, honesty makes a student’s case far stronger, makes remorse seem genuine and allows the panel to look more favourably on the student at hand in terms of an outcome.

In addition, in your everyday life you’ll be amazed at how much your state of mind improves when you start to tell the truth, or at least stop lying, about anything and everything. Confession is only good for the soul because it involves admitting a lie. Preventing these lies from growing in the first place is one of the most beneficial mental habits anyone can develop.

A history of good actions is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card

This sounds quite confusing, but I promise this is a very simple premise.

Simply put, past good actions do not excuse present bad ones. Hypothetically, I cannot use the one time I helped an elderly lady cross the street as a way of proving my good character and therefore absolving me from any future wrongdoing.

In the words of the Surrey Students’ Union team 2018/19, “There is a misconception that there is somehow a “behaviour bank” where you can deposit good behaviour and withdraw misconduct. It does not work in this way.”

You may think that this is fairly obvious. However, it’s important to remember that this applies to all areas of life. People do bad things, and unfortunately the reality is that students are sometimes no different. Historical and irrelevant good actions should not justify or exonerate new misconduct, whether it is for students at panel or your closest friends.

Active listening has far more power than passive talking

It was during my time at the University of Surrey Students’ Union that I first became familiar with ‘active listening’. In short, this is the ability to listen to another person without judgement, bias or disclosing your own opinion. A true active listener will forever feel more inclined to ask a question than to directly reveal his or her own thoughts.

This is a criminally overlooked skill for any area of life. You’ll be amazed at how effective such a technique is in matters of advice, counselling, support and even friendship. Quite often when someone wants to confide in you, they’re not looking for a solution or a quick fix. You can truly help a colleague or friend by facilitating their own thought processes rather than filling their mind with your own.

Next time you’re providing support for a friend, try to ask questions like “what concerns you the most about _?” or “How do you want _ to turn out?” You’ll be amazed at how you both begin to gain a better picture of the problem at hand. Try it, and it will honestly change your life.

There are always two sides to every story

When you find yourself working in a professional environment, being late is not a habit you want to get used to. More often than not, an employer will prefer a candidate who is enthusiastic and punctual to one who might have better grades but often shows up late.

In addition, it can be irritating when a job is at hand and someone from your team fails to show. Therefore, it is only natural for people to feel frustrated at their teammates who don’t share their urgency for the work.

This is the most common example I find in understanding that there are always two sides to every story. On many occasions I have seen individuals label absentees as ‘lazy’ and criticise their lack of commitment, and perhaps reasonably so. It is embarrassing, however, to learn the person who is missing is not present due to illness, unforeseen circumstances or completely justifiable reasons. Although you can make educated guesses, you cannot know one hundred percent for certain why that person is late.

This is only one example. Think about the last time a friend told you a story or a rumour about another person. Stories get exaggerated; people add their own spin and everyone, including your close friends, carry their own biases.

Next time you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these stories, take a second to think about how many of these details you can know for certain. Your friends shouldn’t be opposed to simple questions such as “how do you know this?” There are always hidden elements to an event. There is always a reason why someone is late. There are always two sides to every story.

If you are still reading by this point, it means that somehow one (or a few) of these have had some relevance to you in the past.

Following these ideas as closely as possible is not a guarantee of success, nor will ignoring them completely cause your life to spiral into uncontrollable chaos.

However, these are only a few guidelines that have applied on many occasions during my professional and social life, which are inspired by my experience as a panel member and, to some degree, by a range of authors (if you’re interested to hear more, feel free to get in touch).

Most importantly, however, I believe that these qualities are sure to help any twentysomething year old thrive in chaotic times to come; in your professional life, social life and mental wellbeing.

This contribution was written by Olly Shearman, 23. Visit his profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.