We live in a confrontational, polarized world. Tough questions—and charges—are a part of it. If you are a leader, chances are someone is going to challenge you. It happens to every president, CEO, director and head coach. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a leader, people know you lead the library. If someone has an issue related to the library, you are going to be challenged. What you do next defines you as a leader.

A story I have told before occurred when I took a new position in a school and a teacher came storming into the library and started haranguing my clerk. I came over immediately, indicating if there was a problem, the responsibility was mine, not the clerk’s. It was in the early days of automation, and the practice had been to use teachers’ social security numbers for their barcodes. The teacher was opposed to this. I listened to what she said and apologized for not being aware of the policy. It was my library, and I was responsible. I told her would return all her books, issue a new barcode for her, and re-check out the books to her. At the end of the school year, we changed all teacher barcodes.

What worked when I was challenged? I listened without getting defensive or arguing that I wasn’t the one who put the practice in place. I came up with a satisfactory solution. The result – she became one of my strongest library advocates.

The tough questions are getting tougher, the challenges louder and more fierce. To help us be prepared, Allison Shapira has some answers for you When a Tough Question Puts You on the Spot. Here are her four points.

  1. Prepare in Advance–You can expect to have questions and accusations directed at you for books in your collection and displays in your library. Don’t be caught off guard. Be familiar with the Library Bill of Rights and be able to quote key sections. (You might keep a copy on hand). Have a Selection and Reconsideration Policy in place. This ALA toolkit will get you started if you don’t have one yet.
  2. Pause and Breathe–Being confronted is scary. Your body goes into fight, freeze, flight response. While it is trying to protect you, the process shuts off your cerebral cortex–the part of you that thinks. Allow yourself a moment to respond and get your (hopefully) pre-planned response into action.
  3. Express Sympathy and Honesty–This is what I did with that teacher. When a parent comes to you with a challenge, acknowledge their awareness and their concern. Explain how you don’t seek to override their decisions for their child. Once things have stopped escalating, explain that other parents have the right for their children to have access to those subjects.
  4. Acknowledge the Uncertainty–This is often at the root of challenges and frustrations, rather than true animosity. A teacher is angry and wants to know why the material they requested for inclusion in the library last year is still unavailable. A principal wants more data on the impact of your Makerspace and you hadn’t thought of that before. Be honest about your lack of knowledge, assure them you will look into the matter when possible, and give them a date by which you’ll have an answer.

In some of these confrontations, you need to take a stand and that can be difficult. Shapira recommends you use this PREP framework:

  • Point: State one main point.
  • Reason: Provide a reason behind it.
  • Example: Give an example that supports your point.
  • Point: Before you start rambling, re-state your main point.

You will have to face tough questions and never know when. As with any other aspect of leadership, planning is key. Knowing what you will say when it happens will put you in the best position to handle the challenge and help you trust yourself in difficult, emotional situations.

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