Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dealing With Difficult Patrons

If you've come to this post looking for a magic bullet or a checklist, I can't help you. The truth is that, beyond keeping my customer service skills firmly in place, I pretty much handle each situation differently. I say "pretty much" because there is one thing I do in every difficult interaction I have: I don't take their behavior personally.
    Not reacting can be difficult, and if I'm going to be completely honest I have to admit I can't always pull it off. However, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
    1. Everybody is dealing with something. That woman who snaps her fingers imperiously could be going through a divorce. The teenager who won't stay quiet may be overcompensating for the fact that he's got an unrequited crush on someone else at the table.
    2. I could be dealing with someone who has a learning disability, AD/HD, Asperger's, etc. This can manifest in learned helplessness, short-term memory problems, or an inability to perceive certain social cues. With Asperger's and other Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), behaviors that might seem rude (not meeting my gaze, unexpected reactions, echolalia) are just the ASD and have nothing to do with me.
    3. Teenage brains are still developing (this piece on npr.org presents a nice overview). Among other behaviors, this can manifest in emotional responses that are way out of proportion to the cause.
    4. If all else fails, I remind myself that bad behavior comes from somewhere. It's likely that, at some point in the problem patron's past, someone treated him or her poorly and the patron may think that it's acceptable behavior.
    So, when I'm having a hard time with a member of my community, I try to take a deep breath and remind myself of these points. It doesn't always work, but more often than not I can keep my calm. Understanding its causes doesn't make bad behavior easier to handle, nor does it really excuse inappropriate behavior, remind myself that it comes from somwhere does keep me from making a situation worse.

    It's the double-edged sword of dealing with the public: in order to have those fantastic moments when you see the light bulb switch on and you know you've made a difference for a member of your community, you have to risk dealing with the people who make your stomach lurch when they walk in the door. My method helps me keep calm with any and all difficult patron interactions.

    How about you? What are your tricks for dealing with problem patrons?


    1. Here's a trick that worked for me. I worked in a public library in New York City for 3 years. I had a very hard time dealing with the extremely demanding and difficult patrons there, but after working there for 3 years, I can handle anything. Nobody bothers me after that and it hasn't worn off after over a decade away from that job.

      So, my not-so-practical recommendation is, go work with the most horrible people you can find for a few years and, if you survive that (which I admit I almost didn't) the rest of your career will be a breeze. :-)

    2. I learned these techniques working at a school at which all the students have a diagnosed learning disability &/or AD/HD. There, you learn not to take things personally or you don't survive.

    3. When all else fails, call for back-up & take 5 if you can. Obviously this won't work for solo librarians, but a fresh person often diffuses the situation.

    4. Olivia, I've passed patrons off to other librarians when I'm not on the reference desk and need to get work done.

    5. And remember that sometimes "bad" behavior comes from good intentions. I remember one time as a patron, I joined another patron's conversation with the librarian, thinking to save the librarian from having to answer the same question twice. In the process of the interaction, I ended up coming across as impertinent and, I guess from the librarian's point of view, questioning her authority or professionalism. I didn't mean it that way and felt terrible when I realized how I had come across, but it was too late to correct things without making the situation worse. Sometimes people mean well, but it comes out the wrong way.


    6. Exactly, Jill. Thanks for reminding us of that.