Monday, January 3, 2011

Defusing the angry patron

Defusing the angry patron
by Rhea Joyce Rubin.
Library Mosaics, May/June 2003, pp. 14-15.

Coping with people who are angry is always difficult for many reasons. Often we feel that it isn’t part of the job description. Anger is contagious and it’s hard to face all that emotion and not get upset. Many times we feel that we don’t get the management support we need; we know many of the irritants which anger patrons but library administration don’t fix them. And so on. But the fact is that we must serve annoyed, frustrated, grouchy, or downright mad people every day we work on a service desk. So here are some tips to make it easier.

First, it helps to know a little bit about anger. These three insights into anger suggest ways we can calm people down.

  • It’s not about you. Rarely is anger about you. A patron is upset because of library policies or procedures, the building or equipment, technology or the Internet. A customer is frustrated because of long lines or noisy kids or indifferent staff members. Or the person comes to the library already annoyed and braced for an argument. In none of these common situations is the patron mad at you, the frontline staff. So don’t take it personally. Instead, repeat this mantra: “It’s not about me.” If you can keep from taking it personally, you will stay calm and be able to focus on the patron rather than your own defense.
  • Anger is a secondary emotion. What this means is that anger is almost always a cover for another emotion. We see an angry person but he or she is really embarrassed, scared or hurt. Keeping that in mind can help you decide how to lower the patron’s anger. For example, a woman approaches the circulation desk with her three children in tow. When you tell her she owes $5.00 in fines she becomes belligerent. Probably she is embarrassed to have her children hear that she’s less than a model library user and parent; she does not want her children to see her as someone who owes fines. So, if you can reduce the embarrassment you can avoid the angry interaction. Is there a way you can tell her about the fines without her children there? Or can you give that information in written form so the children don’t have to know about it? A second example is a senior professor who yells at staff when she’s told that she cannot take out a certain book from the college library. She probably feels that her position entitles her to special privileges and she is being disrespected. Is there a way to show her extra respect so that she retains her dignity even if she cannot borrow that book? A third example is a teenager who becomes incensed when told of a fine. He may be frightened that his parents will find out and that he will be punished because he does not have the cash to pay a fine. Is there a way to reduce his fear by explaining the confidentiality of his record and alternate ways of paying off the fines?
  • Anger is in the body. Anger has many physiological components. The body reacts instinctively and quickly when it perceives danger – and high emotion such as anger is interpreted as danger. The body moves into a “fight or flight” stance, which means that it prepares to either fight with the hands or run with the legs. Blood is pulled away from the brain, the stomach, and other systems and sent to the limb. The heart rate and pulse accelerates, blood pressure rises and digestion stops. This is why people get headaches and stomach aches during or after a highly emotional situation. More importantly, the flow of blood away from the brain means that people cannot think clearly or rationally when they are angry. It is essential to give an upset patron time to realize that he or she is not in danger and to calm down before presenting rational solutions.

Now for my five golden rules on coping with angry patrons:

  1. Greet the patron in a warm, friendly, welcoming manner, even if he or she looks upset. By speaking first you set the tone for the interaction.
  2. Show sympathy for the patron’s situation. Most patrons assume staff are not on their side. When you are sympathetic about the frustration of incorrect computer records or broken photocopiers, the customer will be relieved and will calm down. Showing sympathy does not mean that you approve of a patron’s behavior if he or she screams at you or throws a book across the counter; it simply acknowledges the situation and emotion of the person.
  3. Listen carefully and attentively. Be sure you let the patron know that you are listening by nodding, murmuring “hmm,” or repeating back part of what you’ve heard. By listening you are showing respect for the customer and her or his problem which, again, shows that you are on the same “side” as she or he. It also allows the patron a chance to get it out and calm down while giving you time to think of a solution.
  4. Never argue. No matter how tempting it is to prove that you (or the library) are right, you can never win by arguing with a patron. You may think you’ve won a specific round, but the patron will become more unhappy and tell others about his or her mistreatment by staff. And other people in the library will witness what looks like an unsympathetic and combative attitude on your part. So, do whatever you can to avoid arguing. This usually means disagreeing diplomatically. For example, “you may be right?” Or “I never thought of it that way.”
  5. Apologize. An authentic “I’m sorry” can make almost any patron feel better (and therefore calm down). You can apologize for the immediate situation (“I’m sorry you feel that way. Let’s find a way to solve this for you.”). If you are uncomfortable saying, “I’m saying there’s a wait for the Internet stations. You know our budget was cut in half this year and computer workstations are very expensive so…” In most cases, the patron does not care about the library’s situation, only what you can do for him or her.

This is all easier than it sounds. If you can stay calm and not defend yourself or argue, you can focus on the other person. By listening and being attentive, you can usually find something about the situation which does arouse your sympathy and for which you can apologize for on the library’s behalf. At that point, most patrons have recognized that you are concerned for their satisfaction with the library and that you are going to try to help; that leads them to calm down and respond rationally and civilly.

Rhea Joyce Rubin is an independent library consultant who divides her time between consulting and training. Now based in California, Rubin originally learned how to cope with confrontational people while setting up library service in the Cook County Jails (Chicago) in the 1970s. “Defusing the Angry Patron” is her most popular workshop topic and is the title of her forthcoming book, due from Neal-Schumann Publishers in late 1999.

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