Verbal Judo

I’ve now officially taken two classes in martial arts… and neither one involved any physical contact.

Back in June I attended the training seminar “Blackbelt Librarian,” which was all about verbal de-escalation techniques in the library. Up until today, I considered that one of the best, most effective training sessions I’d ever taken. I was trying to prepare myself for a wealth of potential situations of conflict in our Teen Zone, which can at times have up to 100 students in it at once, and I left training that day feeling like I had a whole array of tools in my arsenal to handle conflict.

Like I said, I thought that was the best training I’d ever taken… until today.

Today I was taught the art of verbal judo, a tactical conversational technique designed for police officers but definitely applicable to library situations.

There were many excellent components to this training and those seeking more information about this technique should definitely read the accompanying book. However, I will highlight the most important portion of the training, the 5-step technique for handling any situation and “gaining voluntary compliance.”

  1. Ask for compliance. The best thing to do is show someone the respect they expect by simply asking them to do what they need to do. The trainer, Janine Paul, recommended that you frame your question in such a way that you’re both asking and telling at the same time. Her example: “I’m going to have to ask you to leave this room.”
  2. Expain why: Many people will want an explanation, which is a reasonable request. Give a valid reason. “Because I said so” is not valid.
  3. Offer choices: Give them two choices that you can and will carry out. Don’t make empty promises, and don’t use this as an opportunity to make vague or obnoxious threats. One choice should be the good, ideal choice and should be presented first. The second, should be the (often) worse alternate possibility. This is your opportunity to further open the patron’s eyes to the situation at hand.  Some examples:
    1. “Your choices right now are to leave the building right now and come back tomorrow for a fresh start, or to leave this building with a police escort and then it will be up to them to decide your consequence.”
    2. “Unfortunately we can’t wave this fine right now, but I understand that you are unable to pay that amount at this time and want to work with you. Some options that are available to you at this point are that there is a possibility my supervisor can waive some of this fine. Or, if not, we can discuss a payment plan for this fine.” (You could also offer a third or fourth option if these are available.)
    3. “You are being too loud for this space, and it is disturbing other patrons. If you would like, I can find out if we have an individual study room for you to use where you can make more noise.  Your other option is that you are welcome to stay here and either put in headphones or turn down the volume on your computer.”
  4. Confirm: If they do not choose either option, ask them if there is anything else you can do or say to gain their cooperation. This is their opportunity to potentially save face in front of peers or to more clearly express what kind of outcome they are expecting. If it’s something you can do, do it. If it’s not, express that. If they continue not to be cooperative, move onto the next step.
  5. Act: You can  also move straight to this step if the situation becomes unsafe or if you find you are excessively repeating yourself. Act simply means that you have exhausted all opportunities for cooperation and at this point the situation is one where words will not work. If this is the case, proceed to the next logical step according to your library’s policy. If it’s a matter of safety, you probably want to call the police. If it’s a matter of excessively repeating yourself, or a patron who wants to continue to argue, you may want to refer that patron up the chain of command.

Some other important points she covered was the importance of treating people with the respect you would expect in an identical situation, even if you don’t personally think someone deserves respect. Also, the essentials of verbal and nonverbal communication and how the delivery of a message affects whether someone believes it.

All in all, I would highly recommend this training, and though I haven’t read the book, I would recommend it as a good place to start for anyone who’s looking for more effective interactions with patrons. I’ve only scratched the surface here in my explanation of what I took away from this excellent training.


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