This article is an accompaniment to the webinar, Dealing With the Difficult Patrons. Paul Signorelli is a writer, trainer, presenter, and consultant with a strong focus on workplace learning and performance, and Maurice Coleman is Technical Trainer at Harford County Public Library. For more information about the conflict resolution portion of this article, please visit the WebJunction archive version of their Dealing With Difficult Patrons webinar. Signorelli and Coleman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Let’s get personal.
Keeping up with technological innovations and helping others use new (or even commonplace) technology can be overwhelmingly challenging.
We’ve all been there and experienced the tech version of road rage. We’ve been those angry customers whose wireless or cable connection went down just before we were about to join an online event or the big game that was about to start, and everyone at the cable company’s help desk was off for the day, watching what we had hoped to watch. Or we who just found out that the state-of-the-art tech toy we bought doesn’t work with anything else we currently own, have ever owned, or ever plan to own. Or we just ripped open the package that arrived via UPS and have discovered that the item we ordered using online technology didn’t come in the color we wanted, won’t fit us unless we lose twenty pounds and stop breathing anytime we put it on, and can’t be returned without paying a 20 percent restocking fee.
We probably weren’t feeling particularly reasonable at that moment, were we?
Worse yet: in that moment of disappointment, anger, and—there’s no denying it—blood lust, our conflict resolution skills probably weren’t at their peak. We could probably feel our inner demons egging us on, reminding us that this was just another in an ongoing series of wrongs inflicted on us by faceless strangers who really couldn’t care less about us. And if we really got on a tear, we felt as if this was the latest in a series of insults directed specifically at us and that if we didn’t have immediately adopt that “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” stance, we would never be able to face ourselves again.
Let’s start by considering ways that we become more technologically proficient ourselves so that when things go wrong, we have the knowledge and skills to help make them right. Then we’ll circle back to ways we can effectively help others do the same. And if we’re successful, we’ll help remove a little of the tech rage and reduce the shrieks of anguish emanating from those who are just as angry and as frustrated as we sometimes are.
The good and bad news is that there are plenty of resources for those of us who sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the changes. The trick is to take a deep breath, carve out a few minutes a day to explore one or two that seem particularly interesting and useful to us, and not even think about the ones for which we have no time.
The magic is in the choice offered by “or.”
We don’t have to do it all.
Nor can we.
Our own colleagues have suggested that keeping up with changes in technology is akin to drinking from a firehose—only in this case, we might add, we’ll never fully quench the thirst that initially drove us to that firehose, so we have to take a reasonable approach that works for us and those we serve.
The very technology that drives us to distraction offers plenty of solutions if we’re willing to take the massive first step of cutting something else from our already busy schedules and carving out a little time each day to engage in learning at a personal level.
RSS—Really Simple Syndication—feeds are a great place to begin. If there is something we want to know, we can be sure someone is writing about it and providing access to it through these free feeds. Better yet, we can organize them in a way that makes them available when we want them rather than having them become another firehose that threatens to drown us the first time we jump into the tech information pool.
If we have Gmail accounts, we can easily establish a page or interconnected set of pages through the iGoogle service that receives feeds and, most importantly, that we view only when we are ready to view them. Similar services exist through Netvibes, Pageflakes, and other aggregators.
Within the solution, there is a danger: if we add too many feeds, those pages can become a source of tension and frustration for us when we begin viewing them and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we are facing.
The solution is simple: remember, these feeds are tools for us to use as time allows. We are not required or even encouraged to try to read them all. We need to think of them as our own personally crafted newspapers, with a variety of sections we arrange by setting up different pages by topic—perhaps creating a main page with our 10 favorite feeds, and then establishing other pages/sections based on specific technologies we are trying to follow, such as smartphones or mobile devices; cloud computing; eBooks; eLearning; gaming tools; social media; or troubleshooting tips for those helping others use technology. By setting the feeds to only display the two or three most recent additions, we remove the sense of having an overwhelming amount of choices at this level, and we can easily visit a site to catch up with anything we missed between visits to our RSS aggregator.
Being successful here starts with our own efforts: it’s all about managing our time and resources rather than letting time and resources control and overwhelm us. Instead of being discouraged by the same lingering perception we all have that we simply can’t keep up, we need to abandon something else that isn’t so important and set aside just a few minutes each day to skim the information coming to us via those RSS feeds, then read one article that appeals to us and helps us gain a little knowledge about the tech changes we are facing.
Blogs, wikis, books, newspaper articles, and all the resources mentioned earlier in this article remain fabulous ways to learn what we want and need to learn, and we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the most basic of resources: friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who may have already assimilated what we need to know. They are all around us: in our workplace; in the coffee shops we frequent; at a library reference desk or virtual reference session; at the conferences we attend face to face or online; on the other end of a phone or a Skype or Google Talk conversation; through Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook; and many other options available to us all.
Once we’ve decided where to put up our tech flow controls in place, we’re left with a basic workplace issue: how to effectively help others deal with their own tech overload anger and frustration.
If we remember that a key role we play in libraries today is the role of trainer-teacher-learner, we can accomplish at least a couple of complementary goals: share what we know and, at the same time, eliminate some of the sources of the anger we are facing among library users.
It starts with recognizing that no matter how much anger appears to be directed at us, it often is coming from someone else’s frustration rather than from anything we’ve done. If we refuse to be drawn into the heated moment, we’re on our way to using some of the conflict resolution techniques we already know—those things that, in our more calm and rational moments, we instinctively do, but forget to try when we’re facing someone who appears to be difficult, has a reputation for being difficult, or just plain is difficult.
Nothing defuses anger like an acknowledgement that there is cause for anger. It’s generally pretty hard for someone to maintain anger when we refuse to respond with anger. And if we can diffuse that anger while also providing assistance that will keep that anger from returning, we’ve done one of those small things in life that has much larger, positive results.
We can, furthermore, respond in a way that makes us partners in solving the problem we are attempting to address collaboratively; and then we can listen again to see whether we’ve solved the problem or are any closer to solving the problem we’re facing.
Listening—and working with every bit of talent we have for hearing what someone else is saying or trying to say—is a fabulous and often overlooked tool. And the reward, for all involved, is that we may discover, in the course of listening and being a partner in learning, that we, too, have added to our knowledge in a way that will help the next person we encounter.