Life Lessons from the Library: Sometimes All You’re Being Asked to Do Is Listen

When someone on the library staff comes to me with a problem, I want to solve it. Or I want to give him/her the tools to solve it. I suppose that my default position is why would anyone want to wallow in a problem longer than necessary when it can be solved?

Of course, this attitude gets me into trouble. Some people just want to be listened to, and despite my initial thought, this doesn’t mean that they want to wallow in the problem or not solve it. They just want recognition that the problem is real and important.

I have to admit that my own attitude on this is a reaction to my own over-the-top behavior as a younger person when I could wallow in my problems for an infinite amount of time. As long as I was whining about them, I thought that would substitute for solving them. So I have to constantly remind myself that there is a middle ground.

And the library is an excellent place to be reminded of such things. Maybe because we’re a captive audience at the circulation desk. Maybe it’s because we have kind faces. Or maybe it’s because students know that we can’t give them failing grades. But whatever the reason, we’ll sometimes get an earful about the problems of  the typical community college student.

We try to follow some basic rules in listening to them:

  • We sympathize but never blame. We might say, “That must be frustrating for you,” but never “Lord, what a crazy freak you have for an instructor!”
  • We might give a gentle nudge in the direction of a solution, but if it becomes clear that’s not what is wanted, we back off and just listen.

Sometimes, when you’ve worked at a college for a long time, the processes and procedures become second nature, and you forget that it may seem strange and frightening to new students. It is easy to label those who can’t seem to get the point as obtuse or stubborn. And when you look behind such a student to see another hundred waiting in line, sometimes the only thing you can do is move the person on.

But if you can, actually listening can often make things better. We all like to feel we’re important. We all like to feel that we matter. And sometimes, even if the problem can’t be solved, that’s enough.

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