As I’ve written about many times, we are in the relationship business. Without them, we’re out of business. And if the library is going to be a welcoming place for all, we need to be in relationship with everyone in our building. The challenge comes when we must work with those who we find difficult to connect to – because it doesn’t matter. We need to build a relationship with them and provide them with the same services and resources we give everyone else. We don’t need to be their friends, but we must create the connection that shows we are there for them.
So how can we build these connections? Amy Gallo offers guidance on how to handle tricky waters in Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People). Her five suggestions should get you going.
1. The definition of a “difficult person” is often informed by bias – Take note of why you might consider this person difficult. Gallo says, our interpretation is often informed by our own biases and prejudices. The author suggests you ask yourself: “If your colleague was a different gender, race, sexual orientation, would you make the same assumptions? Would you be willing to say the same things or treat them the same way?”
Even if you have become aware of your implicit bias towards BIPOC – or possibly LBGTQ+ people, there are other types of implicit bias we hold. Do you innately believe your Athletic Director is a non-reader and/or someone who wouldn’t be interested in libraries? Do you unwittingly assume that custodial staff members are less intelligent? What biases do you hold about people who are very overweight, much older (or younger) than you, or those who your friends don’t particularly like? We make judgments without being aware we have done so. Stop to consider this when looking at the relationships that challenge you.
2. Your perspective is just one perspective – It’s not only our implicit biases that shape our perspective. How we see the world is not necessarily how others see it. Our attitude towards so many things unconsciously affects our decisions about others. In my family, we often interrupted each other in our enthusiasm to communicate our ideas. I have a friend who considers it rude. There is no right or wrong here. Only different perspectives that deserve understanding. To deal with this, the questions to ask yourself, says Gallo are, “What assumptions have I made? How would someone with different values and experiences see things differently?” By stopping to ask yourself this, you’ll have the chance to connect.
3. It’s not just negative relationships that need attending to – Your positive relationships may be affected by your negative response to others. Colleagues you don’t like or who annoy you add stress. You bring that stress with you into all areas of your life. And it’s important to recognize that not all relationships fall neatly into “good” or “bad”. There are those which are more ambivalent, and which also need our attention. You may not have a problem with the person, but if you’re indifferent, you really don’t “see” them. As a result, you remain unaware of their needs and don’t provide the same support and resources that you do with your positive relationships. Also remember that relationships aren’t fixed. Good ones can turn sour without care.
4. Escalating is an option that has to be done carefully – As a librarian, this is one you hopefully will never have to use. Going to the administration or possibly the union about a colleague is something that would require an egregious offense. It happened to me only once in my career. I was retiring from a high school library and my co-librarian was a disaster. Through her own careful planning, she managed to avoid being observed so the administration wasn’t aware of her shortcomings. She was up for tenure and slated to replace me. I spoke to the Assistant Superintendent, and while I wasn’t able to change their decision, in my exit interview with the principal, I recommended frequent visits to the library and listening to the staff. They did, and a year later my suspicions proved accurate, and they moved her to another library. The library – and other relationships – were more important. Consider this before escalating.
Sometimes we have to be the adult in the room – As with much of all our relationship-building (in and out of work), and our collaborations, it often seems as though we have to be the one doing the work. There will be times when you need more help from them or wish they’d do more, but ultimately, the only person in a relationship you can control is yourself. These means that to have the relationships we need, we have to accept responsibility for their success, even when (and maybe especially when) it’s difficult.
We need to be in relationships with everyone because the library is for everyone. Yes, some relationships will be deeper than others, some may even become lifelong friendships. What’s important to remember is all of these relationships are important, and the better you are at connecting to your colleagues, students, administrators, and parents, the more likely it is that your program will thrive.