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Getting Past Misunderstanding

different perspectives

On Friday I was at the LJ/Temple Library Future Symposium. I was on a panel with some great folks about bridging the culture gaps in our libraries. Courtney Young, our moderator framed the panel in terms of misunderstandings, and I found this to be really enlightening. Many of the problems we face when groups interact with one another, whether it’s the library vs. IT, change agents vs. resistors, or librarians vs. students, stem from these groups having different perspectives and a lack of mutual understanding of those perspectives.

Let’s take change agents vs. resistors as an example. For this example we’ll use changing the food policy as the conflict (though any change could be substituted here). On one side, you think that the food policy is outdated and that food and drink should be allowed in the library. On the other side there is a group resistant to this change who believe that it shouldn’t change. In order to get past this, there needs to be clear understanding on both sides.

You should first try to understand the other person’s perspective. And don’t just pretend to listen while dismissing what they say in your head. Pay attention and genuinely understand their concerns. Are they concerned about damage to the books or computers? Are they concerned with messes? Are they concerned with the smell? These are all genuine concerns and should be (and can be) addressed. Get to the bottom of why they are resisting the change. When you understand concerns you can then address them.

Then you need to communicate clearly to them why you think the policy should change and make sure that they understand your concerns. Do you think it will create a more welcoming environment? Do you see it happening other places (bookstores, etc.)? Are your users asking for it? Make a clear case for why you think the change is necessary. In discussing the change and coming up with solutions together make sure that their concerns are addressed. You can say something like, “I understand you are concerned with damage to our collection. I don’t want anything to get ruined either. Do we think that will happen a lot though? It seems like Barnes and Noble is not concerned with food or coffee ruining their merchandise. And at home I drink coffee and read books all the time. Does the benefit of making the library more comfortable and welcoming outweighs the risk of a few damaged books? Is there a way that we can limit damage while still allowing food and drink?”

Too often we assume that something is obvious or that someone is just obtuse when in reality we just have differing perspectives. The above approach might work and it might not, but it will be a lot more effective when we try to understand others and address them in terms of their concerns instead of only ours.

 

Andy Burkhardt

3 Comments

  1. In communication, the concept is called frames of reference. I have used an exercise in my public speaking class where I bring in empty picture frames and have the students select one. The frames vary from fancy to plain – it is an eye-opening experience for many students. Very visual reminder that folks are different and we need to consider all of those differences when dealing with them. It is a vital skill to have for any librarian in dealing with our patrons.

  2. I really love that imagery with the frames that you used in your class. And the concept of frames of reference is helpful. I have never taken a formal public speaking or communication class, but I would imagine it would be really valuable. I’m wishing that I had taken an interpersonal communication class now. Maybe I’ll audit one here at Champlain.

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