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TL v62n3: Christy Groves
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It's My Opinion!

Staff Development


Christy Groves



The Right Thing


I’m having a bad day.  It’s Monday, I woke up late, got hung up in traffic on the way to work, and it’s raining.  Geez.  My son forgot his 7th grade science project but didn’t realize it until too late.   So, when I pull into the parking lot at campus barely on time, my cell rings, and Jesse’s pleading with me to go home and bring his project to school – right now.  “But I just got here,” I’m thinking, and it took, well, forever….

So, I turn around and by the time I get all of the errands done and get back to the Library to really start the day, I’m nearly late for my scheduled shift helping patrons at our busy Reference Desk.  I’m already frazzled because I got stuck in a wreck on the way back to work during round two of my daily commute.  Patrons are flocking around the desk with scads of questions:  technology issues, research help, where’s the bathroom, can I borrow a stapler, why won’t this extra-long document print?  Then, all the public printers malfunction, so student after student approaches me wondering what to do when their paper is due in ten minutes and no printer in the building works.

I think I’m still smiling by the end of the shift, but when I make a quick stop at the ladies room on the way back to my office, I notice in the mirror that my now plastered-on smile is downright scary.  Good grief, is that how I look to our valuable users?  OMG.

I truly recognize that if users don’t need us, then I don’t have a job, but why can’t my subconscious understand that although I may be telling the tenth user in a row the same news, it is the first time each of them is hearing what is going on?  It is hard to deliver the same bad news again and again with the same amount of empathy and enthusiasm as it was at first.  Time to reconstruct my poker face. 

I know these folks aren’t really upset with me.  I’m just the face to the problem, but I do find it difficult to separate myself from the situation.  After all, I learned to own my work early in my career.  When I am unable to satisfy users, even though stuff may well be out of my control, I feel bad.  Taking ownership of the user experience is what drove me into the profession and why I continue to strive for the Library’s relevance.  This all sounds awesome in theory, but in my everyday interactions with users, maintaining that positive front is more challenging at times than I’d ever thought.  Sometimes I just want to say to the user panicked when their fifteen page paper won’t print:   Why didn’t you plan ahead and give yourself extra time in case there was a snag?  And, by the way, when I typed papers in college, I did it on a word processor with a little teeny screen and hand fed each sheet into the machine and walked to class over hill and dell in ten feet of snow to hand deliver it to my professor….

Bad, grumpy librarian.  I know better.  I really do.  So, dutifully, I am as helpful and pleasant as I can be.  But inside, my subconscious is hopping up and down in a tantrum.  After the morning I’ve had, why should I be sympathetic to a bunch of people I don’t know?  Why should I be nice to them when poor planning on their part is supposed to equal an emergency on mine? 

Because if I don’t help them, they will have a bad library experience and good customer service helps fuel relevance and success.

Because it is the right thing to do.

Because that is what I am paid to do.

How do I live these mantras?  Especially when I’m already aggravated and frustrated? 

I’ve spent a lot of time helping people.  I’ve tried to resolve innumerable patron concerns and/or crises over the years, and I’ve experienced a lot of upset users.  Here are some tips I have learned that silence my nasty little subconscious temper tantrums:

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  Carefully listen to the user’s concerns and problems.  Let them talk and maintain open body language.  For example, I’ve observed that patrons are put off by a “crossed arms” posture.   Make direct eye contact and use both verbal and non-verbal cues to demonstrate and reassure them that you care for them enough to help with their needs. 
  2. The Golden Rule.  A simple one.  Treat others as you wish to be treated.  If I am already frustrated when I can’t find what I’m looking for at a department store and the clerk ignores my inquiries or gives me poor directions, I leave.  (And then I promptly tell ten of my family members, friends, and colleagues about my negative experience at that store.)
  3. Empathize.  Apologize to the patron for the inconvenience, but never take anyone’s anger or frustration personally.  To take this a step further, recognize that the patron’s concerns may not be your fault, but it is your problem to help resolve the situation.
  4. Recognize that the user may not always be right, but allow them to be wrong with dignity.  While it is tempting to tell the person who has acted rudely that they were purely wrong in their assumption that the Library will provide – insert your favorite phrase here --, making any verbal comment about their error appears as a judgment to them and will undoubtedly compound their anger.
  5. Know your limits.  We all have off days where it takes every ounce of our dignity to remain calm and pleasant.  And once in a while, we all have an occasion where we truly reach the end of our rope. Recognizing and accepting that this will happen is crucial.  Making a referral to another colleague or a supervisor is totally acceptable, and indeed preferable.  It might be a good idea to have some sort of phrase planned to draw on for such times.  Simple “go to” words you can use before you snap:  “I apologize; I am misunderstanding your concerns.   I will get someone to help you right away.” 

Although I didn’t feel compelled to use my “go to” words, today was definitely one of those off days for me.   A number of circumstances well beyond my control definitely contributed to my bad mood at the beginning of the day.  However, I’ve learned that I actually already have 100% control over what is most important:  my attitude.    Frustrated people and upset patrons are a part of our lives that cannot be avoided.  But how we handle ourselves in these situations is what matters most.  Knowing we can chose how we respond to anything that comes along is a powerful, simple-to-use tool. 

Christy Groves is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Library Services.

 creative commons non-commercial attribution




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