There are two kinds of academic librarians. The ones who immediately knew what this post is about, and those who have no clue. Until a short while ago, I’d have put myself in the latter group. That was before I attended this conference session on the topic of staff development. The speakers demonstrated a method for getting staff engaged in discussions about non-technical matters in the library – what you might call the soft skills needed to succeed with community members and colleagues while being able to skillfully defuse difficult situations.
So the conversation turned to an experience nearly everyone who has worked in public services – or at a public service desk – has had: the difficult patron [Personal Note: I'm not a big fan of the phrase "difficult patron" but that's the terminology used by the session presenters; many of us prefer not to use it but on the other hand it offers a convenient and perhaps less derogatory way to refer to this particular individual]. It could be the person who always has a problem, the person that wants to get into an argument with you, the person who never stops talking to you and doesn’t pay attention to your need to get work done, or perhaps it’s all of the above. There are any number of strategies for dealing with these situations. But up until then I had not heard of the “Rescue Plan”.
I don’t think you’ll see the Rescue Plan mentioned much in the library literature. The goal of the Rescue Plan is to extricate yourself from a situation involving a difficult patron by pre-arranging a diversionary or escape tactic with your colleagues. It might work something like this:
The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “Say, did you happen to hear about [insert news or sports topic]. Isn’t that something else. I remember about twenty years ago…”
Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: Sees colleague walking by and gives the secret signal for a “rescue” [eye wink, hand gesture, raises a designated book, etc.]. A variation might be having a speed dial on the phone that calls the back room.
The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “That was when the police officer asked me why I had left my house keys with Uncle Joe in the first place…”
Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: “Oh look, my co-worker needs to talk to me” – or some variation on that where the person making the rescue comes out to the desk and says something along the lines of “The boss needs to talk to you” or “You have a student asking for you on the phone in the back room” or anything that creates an interruption that forces the difficult patron to stop their assault.
What surprised me is the number of librarians who claimed to use the Rescue Plan or a variation on it at their library. What further surprised me is how many of them thought this practice was a great idea for dealing with the difficult patron. I’ve been in these situations myself. I know it can be stressful, frustrating and difficult all at the same time. I can understand the circumstances that would motivate a library worker to want to flee the difficult patron, but as I listened I couldn’t help but feel something wrong about this disingenuous tactic. I have to believe we can deal with these situations in a more positive and productive way.
A more honest and forthright way to tackle this particular patron would be to have a designated person, perhaps the director or department head, take the patron aside for a private conversation. This presents an opportunity to calmly explain that public service workers have jobs to attend to, and even if no one is asking them for help at the moment they may have a project to work on – and that it’s inappropriate behavior to socialize with them for an extended length of time (be specific – e.g., no more than a minute or two is acceptable). Explain that others who need help may avoid the service area if they see someone else there talking to the library staff member.
You may disagree with my suggested strategy for any number of reasons, one of them being that trying to have a rational conversation with some difficult patrons just isn’t an option. No matter how patient and understanding you try to be it just fails to get them to change their behavior. That’s when more stringent measures are needed, such as referring the patron to the library user’s code of conduct and indicating that failure to comply could result in being banned from the library. Another challenge might be that the library organization lacks strong leaders who are willing to tackle these challenges in a transparent and open way, and who are content to let the Rescue Plan do their job for them. Despite some of the challenges it presents I think my approach, in the long run, is more likely to solve the problem by meeting it head on.
Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve primarily worked on the front line, and I know how challenging it can be to work with the public, especially when in difficult budget situations we may have fewer staff, more hours on the service desk and a greater amount of stress. Used sparingly, I can understand the attractiveness of the Rescue Plan. Used excessively I can see potentially troubling cascading consequences. But as I listened to the conversation about the Rescue Plan I couldn’t help but feel that deceptive measures are best avoided. They may work a few times, but will likely fail to resolve the original problem in the long run.
What do you think? Is the Rescue Plan a legitimate strategy for dealing with difficult situations, or are we better off to confront the difficult individual (or group) directly? Can you share an entirely different strategy that has worked for you and your colleagues in these situations?