Monday, June 3, 2013

Five Tips for Creating Boundaries with Library Patrons

A while ago, I read about the horrible experiences Sarah Houghton has had at some conferences. While this post doesn't deal with anything near what she's dealt with, some of us may sometimes have problems creating boundaries with patrons in our everyday work.  I asked library customer service specialist extraordinaire Jennifer Steward if she had any helpful advice.  She certainly does! (Personally, I've found the "Do you have a library question?" to be really effective.) -Rebecca

 No, thank you/No/Stop

May have your phone number?  
Would you like some eel-eye candy?

Working with in a public library means talking with a large number of people everyday. Most of the time this is great. People ask great questions and we help help them use the library. Yay!

But sometimes the questions aren't so great. They can be personal, invasive and harassing and you just want to hide in the workroom. It is hard to do your job while hiding, so what can you do? 

1. Be prepared.
Instead of avoiding eye contact with everyone, be ready to deal with the small percentage of people who make things difficult. If being assertive is new to you, practice with someone you trust. End your sentences with periods, not question marks. OK? OK.

2. Start with "no, thank you."
"Would you like to see my scar?" "No, thank you." 
"Do you want to go to the movies tonight?" "No, thank you."

You were asked a question and you gave a polite answer. Done. Most people will accept your answer and move on. Yay!

3. Say "no" and mean it.
Sadly, some people won't accept a polite refusal. Boo! Then you have to be clear and redirect the conversation to a professional place.

"Tell me more about where you are from?" "No, thank you."
"Come on, tell me how many languages you speak?" "No. Do you have a library question?"

Someone who doesn't accept a "no, thank you" to personal questions graciously is not respecting standard social boundaries. You need a clear and simple message. "No." Do not apologize, make an excuse, or ask a question. You get to decide the boundaries of this conversation.

4. Say "stop" and get help.
If the person continues to pursue an intrusive conversation, be more direct. "Stop." Move away from this person and find a supervisor or other person to help you. If someone is violating social boundaries to the point where you have to say "stop", be aware and be safe.

"Do you want to go out?" No, thank you."
"Do you know you have pretty eyes?" No. Do you have a library question?"
"Why don't you want to talk to me?" "Stop."

5. Tell someone.
If you have an encounter with a patron who doesn't accept a "no, thank you", be sure to share what happened with your supervisor and co-workers. If this person violates social boundaries with you, it is likely this person is doing the same with other staff members. Supervisors need to know what happened so they can support staff and follow up with patrons.

Two last notes: 

"No, thank you" works great outside of work, too. 
"Would you like to contribute to this fundraiser?" "No, thank you."
"Would you like to sign up for that service?" "No, thank you."

Try. Practice. Master. These are the keys to being good at anything. Try different tones of voice until you find the no-nonsense "no, thank you" that works for you. Practice saying no thank you/no/stop with a friend. Master setting polite and professional boundaries. You will be great!

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