Managing stressful interactions – even without a worldwide pandemic – is a challenging and important skill for librarians looking to lead. We are in a relationship business which means different personalities, perspectives on education, and personal issues, all contribute to volatile moments. To maintain and build the relationships vital to our success, we need to be able de-escalate these situations quickly, possibly even before they begin. And that starts with seeking to do what works rather than worrying about being right.
When someone comes to us, whether a teacher, a student, or an administrator, we tend to make a decision and predict what is forthcoming. It is often unconscious, but we note facial expression, body language and other visual cues to determine if that person is about to say something critical or supportive. Our own body language then telegraphs a response. If it looks like something pleasant will be said, we stay relaxed and open. If, however, we anticipate a negative comment, our bodies stiffen. Our arms may cross tightly, our shoulders pull together. We are ready and with nothing being said, the conflict has begun. We need to shut down this reaction before it takes control of the situation.
A guiding question is, “Do I want to be right, or do I want it to work?” Because if you want to be right, it won’t work. Your ego gets invested, and you aren’t listening and aren’t open to other possibilities. Taking an offensive or defensive position is almost a guarantee it won’t work. If you respond offensively, the other person will rise to either defend themselves or shut you down. If you defend yourself, all you get are further examples of your perceived errors.
The solution is to listen. Don’t confuse feedback with criticism,. It’s hard to hear anything negative about our work but focus on the heart of what is being said. Take in what is actually being said not what you fear is wrong. It is related to the axiom: Seek first to understand, then be understood.
I have told the story of when I had started in a new school, and a teacher came into the library storming because her privacy had been violated. In my head I heard, “I have only been here a few months, I barely know you. How could I have violated your privacy?” Fortunately, I thought to move her to my office, and the intervening moments gave me time to think. Instead of jumping in with my perspective, I heard the specifics of what she was complaining about. Her concerns were clear and valid. I came up with a solution. She was pleased and became a huge library supporter.
If she had been incorrect, a different approach would be needed, but that still wouldn’t include telling her why she was wrong. That would only lead to more arguments. Instead, a better response would be, “I recognize you are upset. How can I make this better for you?” This gives her time to think, gives her agency in the problem, and the conflict starts deflating like air leaving a balloon.
Another technique to deescalate a situation is to paraphrase what the other person said as accurately as you can –not coloring it with your judgement. This gives both of you time to pause and reflect on the issue. It keeps you from making assumptions, allows you to be clear about the other person’s concerns, and helps you get to the true point of the problem.
When dealing with students, similar tactics work. If you get into an argument – or worse a shouting match – you have already lost. Keeping the library a safe, welcoming space for all, means you treat even argumentative or hostile students with respect even as you deal with their issue. Listen, paraphrase, and as soon as possible move to a more private place to discuss the issue. The same approach works when an administrator comes to your library or you meet in their office. Focus on listening before responding. And then respond, not react.
Listening to the other person, remembering it is important for the situation to be resolved in a way that supports both sides, and not worrying about who’s right, allows you to manage stressful situations and stay a supportive, astute, leader.