When I first started this job, one of the things I was most anxious about was dealing with difficult people, as I’m actually quite a shy and unassertive person*. However, over the past two and a bit years I have learned some useful coping strategies and practical steps that I’m going to share with you, as I imagine that being shy and unassertive are relatively common traits amongst young librarians! I’ve split this into two posts; today’s is about dealing with angry people and next week I’ll post about dealing with disruptive people; it’s a small distinction but an important one, the main difference being that the angry people will come and find you, while you have to go and find the disruptive people!
In my two and a bit years in this job, I’ve dealt with my fair share of angry users. The top 3 would probably have to be:
- The guy who shouted at me for 10 minutes about how rubbish our computers were and how it was my fault that he’d been here for an hour and got nothing done.**
- The chap who had been given the wrong information over the phone and therefore exploded at the Helpdesk and whinged at me about how we’d wasted half an hour of his time that he’d never get back.***
- The lady who, in my second week in the job, said that the Library didn’t care about the safety of women on campus and she hoped I got raped.****
The following tips are ones that I have learned by dealing with those people, and others like them. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t enjoy any of these experiences, not all of them went well and I could definitely have dealt with some of them better. But you live and you learn, and here is what I have learned about dealing with angry people:
- Know your enemy – Nearly every angry person I have ever dealt with has been a mature student. The small amount who haven’t have been undergraduates with a lot going on in their lives. The thing to understand with these people is that the Library and all of its rules is the last thing they care about, the tiniest part of their life and one they expect to run smoothly. They have jobs, family and homes to look after. So some of them, the ones who have a tendency to get angry anyway, are absolutely infuriated when something so unimportant to them becomes an issue. They’re especially annoyed, as you can see from the above examples, when it takes up their time. So watch out when you see a mature student in the queue looking determined; he’s about to be a problem.
- Get them away from the desk – Anger thrives with an audience, don’t let them have one. Take them somewhere private. Also, get them to sit down; it’s difficult to rant and rave from a chair. (edit: make sure someone knows where you are though! Don’t put yourself into a dangerous situation.*****)
- Don’t put up with being shouted at – I doubt any of us are paid enough for this; don’t put up with it. Say something like: “Could you please lower your voice, I feel like I’m being shouted at and that won’t help us resolve the situation.” If they continue shouting, walk away. “I’m going to walk away until you’re able to discuss this with me calmly.” Don’t feel bad about calling Security if it really goes wrong, that’s what they’re there for.
- Let them rant / cry it out – as long as they’re not shouting, just let them get their initial rant out, or let them get over their tears. They’re not going to listen to you at this point anyway so save your breath and just calmly make notes about what they’re saying.
- Meaningless platitudes – that’s not to say that you can’t use meaningless platitudes while you investigate further; I’m a big fan of these as it makes them think that you care without you actually admitting fault. My most used ones are “that must have been very frustrating / difficult / upsetting for you” and “I can see why you would feel that way.”
- If the Library has made a mistake; apologise – even if it wasn’t your mistake, just apologise, it’s what they want to hear and you are the Library personified to them. “I’m very sorry that this has happened and I will do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” It won’t always help; some people will just say “well how’s an apology supposed to help me now?” but it’s worth doing anyway. At least you can always say afterwards that you did apologise.
- Be prepared to cut a deal… – this obviously depends on the rules of your workplace, but I am always prepared to make a deal with an angry person if it will get them out of the Library quicker. Yes, they may have broken the rules and no, you may not want to make them think that they can get what they want by ranting, but really; the risk to your blood pressure and mental equilibrium is not worth it! If it will get the whole thing over with, use whatever powers are within your means to do so. I’ve waived a proportion of people’s fines if they pay the rest immediately, or offered to hold books for them for a day while they resolve the problem, that sort of thing.
- ...but make sure they know if they were in the wrong – this is important, don’t let them go away thinking that they can do this again. Before you offer them a deal, explain exactly how they ended up in this situation. Make sure they understand. I have sat with students and made them log into their accounts and renew their books to prove they know how to do it before I have waived a single penny from their record. Also make sure they know this is a one-off. “On this occasion I am prepared to offer X, but I’m going to make a note on your record of the conversation we’ve had today and you won’t be let off next time”
- Refer them up the ladder – if you are not able or prepared to cut a deal, then refer them to your manager or whoever is the next step up from you in the workplace; don’t feel bad about doing this, that’s why there’s a ladder! Managers, Heads of Circulation etc reading this: sorry to lay it all on you, but that’s why you get the big bucks and it’s not like you really needed this advice anyway, is it?
- Some people are just [censored!] – there will always be people who will not respond to any of this, people who will go out of their way to be difficult and will not give an inch. These are the people who refuse sincere apologies and who ask “but what about my wasted time, what are you going to do about that?” Nothing you can say will please these people, so retreat into icy politeness until they leave.
- Try not to get angry or defensive – This is difficult, especially if what they’re saying is really ridiculous. Try pausing before you say anything, or taking a deep breath first; this has often stopped me from snapping at them.
- Don’t take it personally – As I said earlier, to these people you are the embodiment of the Library, but that’s all; they don’t know who you are, they don’t know what you’re like and they are not angry at you personally, they are angry at the Library, at the system they perceive to be punishing them. The angry people who I have dealt with have normally been at the end of their tether and this is the last in a long line of things that have happened to them that day, which is why they have exploded. Bear that in mind and try not to take it on board or let it stress you out. It’s really not worth it. If you find that you can’t let it go and that these situations really affect you; speak to your line manager or to Occupational Health about it.
- Vent; vent long and loud – this is a key step in not taking it on board; get your own stress and anger at the situation out as soon as possible by venting to your colleagues. Go to the staffroom and find whoever’s having a cup of tea and bend their ear. Then tell someone else. Then rant on twitter about it. Each time you vent your stress level will get lower. (It may get higher in the people who you vent to, but that’s their problem!)
- And finally, look on the bright side; none of the people who have ever been screamingly angry at me have ever called me Miss!
I hope that one or a few of these tips may help someone out at a difficult point in their day. What I really hope is that none of us ever have to deal with anyone like this ever, but that’s not very likely in our line of work! So chin up, and hide some emergency chocolate in your bottom drawer, you’re going to need it one day.
*Shut up, I am! Or I was anyway, my Mum says that living in London has made me a lot bolshier!
**He was right about the computers but not about it being my fault. I infuriated him even further by agreeing with him and trying to get him to fill out a complaint form so we could use his experiences to talk to IT which is not what he cared about, he cared about his wasted time. He never did send in a complaint form, git.
***See how time is becoming a common theme?
****This was ridiculous, the woman was clearly at the very end of her tether and was standing outside getting some fresh air. Some boys were out there too and one spat on the ground; she interpreted this as threatening and went into a screaming meltdown. Fun!
*****Thanks to @CareersInfo on Twitter for reminding me of this important point!