Defusing a Confrontational Situation

Q: Can you provide some tips on how to defuse a confrontational situation with someone who has a concern about materials in a library or classroom?

First, take a deep breath. Extend a hand to shake if you can. Invite the person to sit down. Redirect them away from the center of a public area, if possible.

Listen to what the person has to say.

Try to repeat what you’re hearing, rather than respond. Do not agree in order to calm the person down.

Try not to be defensive. It’s hard, but it’s important for you to be as calm and measured as possible. It may help defuse the situation, and you’ll be able to think more clearly.

The best thing you can probably say is, “We wish every parent (caregiver, guardian, citizen, board member, etc) cared as much as you do about what your child is reading (studying, seeing, checking out of the library, etc.).” This is true. It affirms the caring intention of the complainant.

If you can naturally, truthfully say something that builds a connection between you, and you sense it can make a difference, do so. “I have a child/grandchild/niece/nephew and I understand. I worry, too, because the world sometimes seems like a scary place.”  You might be able to affirm the importance of adult family/caregivers. “But I also know—and trust—that the values children learn at home support them in the world.”

In a library, if you sense the person is calming down, and listening, you can considering adding more about the library’s role in supporting all families: “I also know that even as all families have a lot in common, every family is different, and so we never assume every book is a good fit for every family in the community (or school community). But we’re confident every book we have will be valued by some in our community. We want to make sure we’re offering choices for everyone.”

If you feel as if things have progressed, you can offer to help find something else if you sense it would be welcome.

In  a classroom, you can still follow many of the steps above, but because materials in a classroom may not be “choice” materials–they may be required reading–you should be prepared to talk about the principles and goals that guide your selection decisions. For example,”My goal is to make sure students have books that will engage them, and also encourage them to think about themselves and their relationship to the world around them; I see every day how the values they learn at home inform how they connect to books.”

If the person is insistent that the material they’re upset about doesn’t belong, then you can begin to talk about the fact that the library/district takes all concerns seriously. You can offer to tell them about the reconsideration process and form, or offer them the opportunity to get in touch with you if they want to find out more about it. We hope that your library or school district has a board-approved selection policy that includes reconsideration procedures. Mention this policy and explain that it exists to ensure a fair, democratic procedure is followed on the occasion of a formal complaint, if that’s what this individual wishes to consider doing. This policy protects everyone’s rights. (Make it a point to review your policy periodically so you—and your staff—are clear on what it says and what to do if a complaint arises.)

But do NOT immediately thrust a packet of papers at the complainant and say it’s up to her/him whether or not to complete and return these forms. Instead, find out exactly what the complainant hopes will be done as a result of this conversation.

Point out what you and the school or public library can do—following the policy—as a response to the complaint. Point out that in the meantime the book will continue to be taught or circulated from the library (unless your policy says otherwise—but the preferred procedure is for the material to remain on the shelf and available to users).

Follow through promptly by doing exactly what you’ve assured the complainant you will do (follow the policy, find an article about this type of book or this particular video, inform the department head or library director, read the book yourself and get professional reviews) and set another time to meet. If your initial conversation was by phone, set a time to talk in person if that’s what is needed.

Finally, thank the complainant for coming in or phoning. Shake hands.

Afterwards, write and date careful notes to yourself in order to remember as specifically as possible what was said and what you agreed to do. Really–write it down! It will help you provide an accurate account of the interaction for your supervisor, who should definitely be notified about the conversation that took place.

(See the CCBC handout Materials Concern Checklist/Tips and Talking Points for more ideas on things you can say and do)

October, 2005