I’ve worked at a public library for almost two and a half years now, and while I overwhelmingly love my job and working with my community, I have also had my share of difficult, antagonistic, bizarre, or upsetting patron interactions. Recently, I was away from work for about a week with a health issue – when I came back to work I was already worn out and on top of that, had fallen out of the mindset of dealing with patrons. For most of the week I had only pleasant interactions, but by Thursday I had worn myself out going back to class and my second job, and in this state I encountered a patron who was demanding, unreasonable, and impatient.
I hate to admit it, but I lost my cool a little bit. I might have even said, “was that a threat?!” in that voice (I didn’t even know I had that voice in me!) among other things, essentially escalating the situation out of my control.
I don’t think I acted in a way that was indefensible or would have endangered my job, but it didn’t live up to the standard of respect or civility that I have set for myself. I left the interaction feeling red-in-the-face angry, embarrassed to the point of tears, and like I’d failed entirely. No matter how many great interactions you have, it only takes one incident like this to screw up your day/make you question all of your life choices/regret getting out of bed in the morning.
In the days since, as I tend to do, I mulled it over endlessly in my head – what could I have done better? How can I strike a balance between advocating for myself and acting in a professional way? Why was the guy such a jerk?
I will never have this specific situation to do over again, but I will have many more opportunities to deal with people who are frustrated, angry, and irrational. In preparation for these moments, I’ve been shoring up some resources and tools, looking for encouragement, and learning how to better assess situations. So far, I’ve come up with the following strategies:
Look for Role Models
Find people who you think handle difficult situations well and WATCH THEM. Watch those winners like a hawk. I’ve found my coworkers to be the greatest wealth of examples of how to handle out of control situations. They act with grace and patience under pressure. I have one colleague who is especially good at sternly but kindly shutting down unwanted comments on her personal appearance. Watching her in action is a great education.
Find Support From Your Employer
This has been a big topic with my employer lately, so they’ve provided a lot of training, sent out lists of resources, and focused meetings on how to deescalate situations. If your leadership ever asks for feedback on what kind of training you feel you need, don’t be afraid to tell them and advocate for yourself. You might not be the only one who’s brought it up.
Know How You Diffuse
What do you need to do to decompress after you’ve had a negative interaction? Listen to your own emotions and take care of yourself. If you need to find someone to vent to, know who that person is. If you need to be alone and think it out for yourself, find a way to do that. Unless you quit and find a new profession, you’re going to have to come back and do this tomorrow or the next day. It’s important to refresh and refocus after a rough interaction.
Look to Other Industries
We aren’t the only profession that deals with people all day. What can you learn from customer service, from retail, from organizations that deal with your library’s same population? Find allies in other professions and consider searching in other circles for good advice.
Trawl the HLS Archive
Whenever I encounter a problem, I usually do a quick search here on HLS to see if anyone’s written about it before – some freakin’ smart people have written for this site and I really appreciate their advice. There are articles on working with diverse populations, providing service across language lines, embracing the mundane, acting professionally, public service, finding heroes, and being a people librarian.
And, as always, we can be resources for each other. Do you have a difficult situation that you handled poorly or really really well? Share your story in the comments!