image via rofltosh on Flickr
It’s easy to dismiss a co-worker as someone who resists change, or dismiss a student who doesn’t want to put in time and effort on research as lazy. It’s much harder to stop and really try to understand with their position, their motivations, and empathize with them. It’s much harder, but it’s also much more valuable.
Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches-Johnson did an awesome presentation this fall at the Future of the Academic Library Symposium sponsored by Library Journal and Temple University. One of the main points they made was that the reason we have user gaps and a disconnect between patrons and librarians is because of a lack of empathy. We design resources and services that make sense to us, but do not fully take into account our users. This is at the core of user experience design. To be able to best serve our users, we need to really understand them.
This involves talking to them, having conversations with them, and asking for their feedback. In these conversations it’s easy to jump to conclusions and say things in your mind like, “that would never work,” or “they just don’t understand how things work here.” This is exactly why there are gaps in service in the first place. Really understanding someone’s position means not judging it or jumping to conclusions. It means seeing it for what it is. Often problems are much different that what we prematurely judge them to be. Perhaps a student appears lazy because they have no interest in the topic they chose and therefore no motivation. This is a very different problem than laziness.
We also need to bring this level of understanding and empathy into our relationships with colleagues. Whether it’s another librarian who you see as change resistant or a professor who is very particular, instead of writing them off as being set in their ways or being difficult, we should try to really put ourselves in their shoes and understand their position. Perhaps this professor or colleague doesn’t actually get listened to that often. Their ideas, responses, and concerns might be enlightening.
We have our own lenses through which we see the world, and these are very different from other people’s lenses. The next time you find your self getting frustrated at a colleague or a student, try to sincerely understand where their coming from and see things through their lens. That shared understanding will make you less likely to be frustrated and will bring you closer to solving the problem that you’re working on.
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.