Difficulties with Patrons

** crossposted at Literature Reviews for Library Techs **


In this review, I am considering a common dilemma, especially for library staff who work in a public service role.  What is the best way in which to deal with the library patron whose behaviour is presenting difficulties to library staff?  In this review, I will restrict myself to consideration of tactics for front line staff to use in such situations.  I will also mostly limit myself to ordinary situations where the patron is exhibiting difficult behaviour, but not extreme violent or aggressive behaviour.


**crossposted at LibTech Soup**


Empathy and Active Listening

In the literature, there was a broad emphasis on the importance of active listening when encountering a difficult patron (Smith, 1996) (Smith, 1993, 35-37), (Rubin, 57-64), Turner, 47-50), Specifically, in handling critical patrons, it is important to reflect the primary feeling that comes from the patron, rather than the secondary feeling.  For example, if a patron is having a problem with a library computer, acknowledge the feeling, you could say something like “I can see that.  Can you tell what it is about it that bothers you the most?”

Smith (1993, 33-35) also emphasizes assertiveness as a tactic to utilize.  This means behaviours such as raising rather than lowering your voice, standing if the patron is standing, and moving closer to the patron.  Finally, she suggests asking questions of the patron to determine the circumstances (who, what, where, when, and how).

Smith (1993, p. 29-33) discusses a few different communication tactics in dealing with the difficult patron.  In addition to active listening, she also points out the importance of nonverbal communication, such as body language, eye contact, and intonation (see also Rubin, 13-15 and Turner, 47).  “What we are after in good communications is a perfect match between what we are saying, how we say it, and what our body is demonstrating we feel.  First she suggests the paraphrasing technique, where the staff reflect back to the patron what they are saying.  She also suggests the “I Believe You” technique.  This can be used in the case of overdue fines, where the patron has said they have already returned the item.  You do not automatically delete the fine, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the staff responds positively to the patron, by expressing their belief in what the patron is saying, before launching into a search for the item.  Finally, when the patron is particularly angry, Turner suggests the stand and deliver technique, where the “staff stands still and the patron delivers anger.”  Wait until the patron has run out of steam, and then explain library policy to the patron.  If there is not an end in sight to the diatribe, refer the patron to a superior.

Warren Graham is a security consultant who has worked with libraries.  In Black Belt Librarians (19-43), he suggests three methods for dealing with upset patrons, Attitude, Approach, and Analysis.  Attitude means that the staff are aware of the personal problems they may be taking in to work, and putting them on the backburner.  With Approach, you consider the best way to deal with a situation.  Analysis involves going over an incident after it’s occurred, and learning from your mistakes.

Graham also has a four point strategy for dealing with a patron who is upset about something.

  1. You recognize that he is upset
  2. You ascertain at which level he is operating.
  3. You respond with the strategy for that specific emotional state
  4. You concentrate and center on affecting your plan.

Here are the four emotional states in question:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Belligerence
  3. For  “Control, as in out of control!”
  4. Calm

During the Anxiety state, you want to let the patron vent, and show some empathy; basically, use active listening skills.  In the case of Belligerence,  you want to show that you want to help the patron while suggesting that the belligerent behaviour is not helpful.  In a Control state, where the patron is actually violent or aggressive, you need to be aware of the physiological fight-or-flight reactions happening within you, breathe deeply, and call for assistance.  Calm is the most common state a patron will be in, but be careful if a patron is out of control and becomes calm.

Rubin (27-56), in Defusing the Angry Patron, describes 25 strategies for dealing with the angry patron.  She broadly summarizes the approach with a basic formula:

  • Greet
  • Listen
  • Acknowledge
  • Listen
  • Apologize
  • Ask questions if necessary
  • Listen
  • Bridge
  • Suggest a Solution
  • Get Verbal Confirmation

 Is it the Patron or the Behaviour?

Slavick (2009, 38-42) emphasizes that it is important to take the position that, as patrons don’t generally enter the library to cause problems, it is better to think in terms of problem situations rather than problem patrons.  It could be related to the situation that the patrons coming from, or it could have to do with the staff not giving the patron the respect they deserve.  He demonstrates through a number of hypothetical examples the importance of not only active listening and empathy, but also “staying on topic, and maintaining an impersonal yet flexible approach.”

Approaches from other Disciplines

Similarly, Ferrell (141-151) examines nursing literature as well as library literature to discuss approaches to dealing with problem patrons.  In particular, the symbolic interactionist theory is evaluated.  She asks where the ‘problem’ should be located.  It could be within the patron, or it could be within the behaviour itself.  However, in both cases, it is suggested that the problem lies within the patron, in that the problem is the patron’s.  Nursing literature identifies the problem as being located in the “interpersonal interaction.”  Ferrell suggests that library staff ask several questions of themselves regarding how they feel in the interaction, are they judging the patron based on their own beliefs, and what is behind the patron’s behaviour?

  • Is the staff person judging the patron based on their own personal beliefs and values?
  • Does the staff person feel inadequate or incompetent in the interaction?
  • Does the staff person know how to approach mental  health, special needs or cultural diversity issues of patrons?
  • Does the staff person see or refer to the patron as an individual or categorize them based on their behavior or as a member of a group?
  • Does the staff person see the individual patron and their behavior as the problem or does the staff person attempt to understand the behavior and what’s behind it in order to focus on the source of the problem?

Quinn (181-195) takes a psychotherapeutic approach to the question.  He suggests taking a containment approach.  If we assume that the patron is reacting in a way that is familiar based on past life experiences, it is best to “adopt a non-flight response” to show the patron “that there is another way to relate to people that is outside the aggressor-victim dichotomy.”

Toot takes a Zen Buddhist approach, and suggests applying four Zen tenets to interactions with difficult patrons:

  1. Openness means we realize that we won’t always be treated nicely, and accept and experience the patron “without letting it affect us psychologically and emotionally.”
  2. Mindfulness means to be aware of what the other person is saying, instead of just waiting for your turn to talk.
  3. Compassion means keeping in mind that pain and suffering that the other person might be experiencing.  It also means acknowledging to yourself your own difficulties.
  4. Beginner’s mind means being open to all possibilities, rather than just limiting yourself to a few options based on “expertise.” 


Empathy is important; let the patron know that you recognize and are respectful of their feelings.  Soften your speech, and introduce yourself to them in order to make an interpersonal connection.  Be aware of your nonverbal communication.  Be cognizant of the eye contact, body language, facial expression, and intonation that you use, and the effect that it may have on the patron.  A near universal suggestion based on the literature I reviewed is that it is important to actively listen to the patron if they are presenting challenges.  This can mean using one of the responding techniques suggested by Turner.

Be aware of your own mental health; be cognizant of the baggage you are taking with you to work.  Consider Ferrell’s advice to explore what might be behind the patron’s behaviour, or your own.  Ask yourself the questions that she poses.  Also, you can take the psychotherapeutic approach and model a new approach to interpersonal relations.  Be aware of your own reactions to the patron’s behaviour, and show the patron an unreactive approach.


Ferrell, Shelley. “Who Says There’s A Problem: A New Way To Approach The Issue Of “Problem Patrons”.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 50.2 (2010): 141-151. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

Graham, Warren. Black Belt Librarians: Every Librarian’s Real World Guide to a Safer Workplace. Charlotte, NC: Purple Heart Press. 19-43. Print.

Quinn, Brian. “How Psychotherapists Handle Difficult Clients: Lessons for Librarians.” Helping the Difficult Library Patron. Ed. Sarkodie-Mensah, Kwasi. New York: Haworth Information Press, 2002. 181-195. Print.

Rubin, Rhea Joyce. Defusing the Angry Patrons: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2011. Print

Slavick, Steven. “Problem Situations, Not Problem Patrons.” Public Libraries 48.6 (2009): 38-42. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

Smith, Kitty. Serving the Difficult Customer: A How-To Do-It Manual for Library Staff. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1993. 29-39. Print.

Smith, Nathan L. “Active Listening: Alleviating Patron Problems through Communication.”  Patron Behavior in Libraries: A Handbook of Positive Approaches to Negative Situations. Eds. Beth McNeil and Denise J. Johnson. Chicago, American Library Association, 1996. 127-134. Print.

Toot, Louisa. “Zen and the Art of Dealing with the Difficult Patron.” Helping the Difficult Library Patron. Ed. Sarkodie-Mensah, Kwasi. New York: Haworth Information Press, 2002. 217-233. Print.

Turner, Ann M. It Comes with the Territory: Handling Problem Situations in Libraries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1993. 45-51. Print.



3 thoughts on “Difficulties with Patrons

  1. Reblogged this on Stacks and Ranges and commented:
    Every so often I come across something library related written so much better than I could have thought of it. Stephen Karr just started his blog Literature Reviews for Library Techs. Hopefully, he can keep this up to add to the knowledge base for all Library Techncians. Why should Librarians have all the fun with literature reviews. 😉

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