Laughter is one strategy for dealing with difficult people.
For instance, it was humor that probably saved me the time a patron came to the desk, stood in front of me, and asked, “Can I speak to someone smarter than you?”
Granted, some individuals might feel insulted by such a question, but I was amused. Waving my hands in the general direction of people walking by, I said, “Take your pick. It’s a university.”
The patron had the grace to appear embarrassed standing at the reference desk, in search of a smarter librarian, not me, but the reference desk is where you go for help. “Just ask.” It’s our policy, and in all our library marketing material.
The patron was looking for someone he trusted. Rather quickly, I realized that it was my female-powered brain that was interfering with his ability to get legal research help. So, I set him up with a male colleague. And voilà, problem patron no more.
Why didn’t I react in anger? Because my ego is not attached to what strangers think about my intelligence. I was free to go with the flow. He wanted a man’s help. I knew a few.
Sometimes as a public service librarian, I deal with difficult people. Perhaps you have also. Often the problems are minor, like the story I just told you, occasionally the problem person is complicated, and their issue can’t be resolved easily.
Recently, I had an unpleasant experience with an unhoused community member who complained because I allowed children to run around the library. Unsupervised, in front of law students!
A week earlier, the woman complained about my work performance, after sending an email to the reference email service, asking staff to pull a list of cases and books for her. Her email said she would pick the material up at nine in the morning. I replied that I would be happy to help her find the cases, but she would have to pull and copy them. She was so affronted that she then sent a strongly worded email to my supervisor about my lack of professionalism. She was sorry that she had to report me, but it was for my own good, so my supervisor could correctly teach me how to respond promptly to requests. It was a hilariously harrumph-y email. Again, my sense of humor gave me perspective.
Defining a problem or difficult person is a challenge because emotional reactions can be influenced by a variety of factors such as past experiences, familiarity with the individual, training and education, where we grew up, even the support we have from our community. Unfortunately, studies show that even one aggressive encounter at a service desk affects performance and work productivity. Having a strategy for dealing with a difficult person may protect our emotional wellbeing, increase our ability to perform work tasks, as well as give us additional health benefits.
About that study on work productivity and aggressive behavior, the research suggests that the brain processes the perceived threat first, while work tasks become secondary. I love these studies. If someone approached the reference desk with a baseball bat, finishing up that powerpoint you are working on is probably not going to be your initial reaction. You will address the threat.
The study also suggested that if the exchange triggers a stress response in an employee, it can also lead to burnout, depression, and absenteeism. Even in less emotionally charged responses, conflict with others can cause rumination, focusing our energy on thoughts about what we could have done better, or what should we do next time. The time spend wondering about our feelings and reactions to the situation becomes lost productivity and wasted energy. As Elsa sings, “Let it go.”
Strategies for Dealing with Difficult People
First, let’s acknowledge something happening to librarians across the country. Many in our profession are exhausted and when it comes to dealing with others, exhausted people have less emotional reserve to deal with a problem, and the problem after that. So, my first suggested strategy is to take a break. I realize this is a cliche, but as the stewards in the airplane tell us, put your mask on first, before helping the person next to you.
Take a break. Breathe deep the gathering gloom. I believe I aged myself with those lyrics. Anyway, give yourself a breather. I used to chase lawyers out of my office if I realized they were too tired to speak.
Change your perspective: According to the author of Zen and the Art of Dealing with the Difficult Patron, Louisa Toot, “Half the battle of dealing with a difficult patron is one’s own perspective.” Even if you don’t practice Zen Buddhism, changing how you perceive a person is useful. Is the person “difficult” or “Do they have a problem?” In another article I read, the author compared library literature to nursing literature. The author used the health literature to create a new framework for thinking about the problem patron. Nurses frame the issue of dealing with people differently and the author suggested librarians could benefit from doing the same to change the dynamics of how we perceive patron challenges.
Listen: Ask questions and rephrase what you’ve heard, tell the person you are trying to understand if they appear frustrated. Listening is especially useful when someone isn’t clear. I once worked at a nursing home, one of the residents was a woman with aphasia, the loss of the ability to speak. I learned how to communicate with her through a series of Q &A, because I realized although she might not be able to speak as clearly as others, she could nod and shake her head, move her body. We used the tools that were under her control, and it saved both of us frustration. Her nurse and family asked me to teach them my trick. I listened, and I watched her body language for clues to how things were going.
Trust: Developing trust is an important factor in communicating with others. I once calmed a patron who threatened another librarian by using his trust in me to help him gain control of his emotions. The patron was shouting, waving his arms, scaring everyone else in the library. I reminded him that he knew me and that I had helped before and asked, “Could I help you again?” It worked. He stopped ranting and eventually calmed down. I don’t know why he lost control, but I knew that under normal circumstances, he was a nice man.
Respect: Show others respect. We all deserve to be respected. I say please, thank you, and address people formally when appropriate. But respect goes both ways, and that means you deserve it too. You don’t have to accept verbal abuse because you are in a service profession. You always have the right to walk away from a situation, to tell someone no or to ask them to leave unless they can control their behavior. The customer isn’t always right.
Stay Calm: Sometimes, when someone is angry, I think about how a toddler behaves when having a meltdown. I don’t blame the toddler or myself for the loss of emotional control. Aim for calm and if your emotions get the best of you, that’s fine too. It takes practice. Once an attorney sat in my office squeezing a stress ball as he gave me a request, and the ball broke in his hand. We both stared at it, amazed. I believe he may have been stressed. Emotional control is hard work.
Humor: I told you laughter is one of my favorite strategies. Studies show humor may be effective in emotional regulation and it has been my sense of humor that has influenced my interactions with students, faculty, and my community. I am a big fan of laughter. I believe that it is healing. I admire comedians and I give funny books to friends and family when they are sick or injured. I act as if laughter is part of the recovery process. If you are stressed by an angry patron, and going for a jog or a walk isn’t possible, try lessening the tension in your body with laughter. Can’t find anything funny about the interaction even after it is over and the problem gone? Still feeling shaken? If you are in that dark place, try lightening the mood, even if it is only to spend a few distracting minutes watching a quick video on whatever amuses you, before you return to your normal tasks. It might slow productivity down, but it will also slow your heartbeat, and that makes the time well spent.
List of articles on the topic of dealing with difficult people.
James Gross is an emotional researcher who has published books and articles on the Model Process of Emotional Regulation. Emotional regulation is the study of what influences our emotions. Gross, J. J. (1998a). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-99.
Rafaeli, Anat, Amir Erez, Shy Ravid, Rellie Derfler-Rozin, Dorit Efrat Treister, and Ravit Scheyer. 2012. When Customers Exhibit Verbal Aggression, Employees Pay Cognitive Costs. Journal of Applied Psychology 97 (5): 931–50. doi:10.1037/a0028559.
Toot, Louisa. 2002. Zen and the Art of Dealing with the Difficult Person, The Reference Librarian, 36, 75-76, 217-233.
Ferrell, Shelley, Who Says There’s a Problem? A New Way to Approach the Issue of “Problem Patrons,” Reference & User Services Quarterly, 2010. vol. 50, no 2, pp. 141-51.