De-Escalation Techniques for Real-Life Programming Scenarios

As a librarian, you may face stressful or potentially harmful situations on the job. Maybe you’ve recently had a run-in with a patron asking you uncomfortable questions or had a program that was met with protests. What are the best ways to de-escalate these situations? Luckily, they are techniques you probably already have in your librarian toolbox.

Illustration shows two silhouettes of heads in profile against an orange background. They are connected by a long piece of thread. The figure on the left has a neat spiral of thread and the figure on the left has a knotted piece of thread.
Fosse recommends memorizing your library's policies as well as key phrases to get you out of sticky situations. Do you have any common phrases you use?

Farah Fosse, lead instructor at Defend Yourself, conducts training for libraries and their employees to help address and handle threatening situations while maintaining a safe environment for the community and library staff. I spoke with Fosse about their best tips and techniques to assess and de-escalate some common, real-life library programming scenarios.

Make sure you (and all other library staff) know your library’s policies

First things first: Your library probably has policies in place that can help maintain a safe environment. Do you know these policies? Does your staff apply them consistently?

"People enforcing policies differently can be a huge safety issue,” says Fosse. “For example, a patron tells you ‘But librarian X lets me do this, why can’t you let me?’”

To avoid this potentially harmful situation, make sure there is consistency across all staff in how you implement and state your policies to patrons.

Be sure to send out the same policy messaging throughout your social media channels as well. Knowing your policies is the best way to begin intervening in conflicting situations, whether someone is filming you or other patrons, blasting music through the computers, or behaving dangerously.

Know the difference between an escalated person and an inappropriate one

Not every difficult encounter you face will require de-escalation techniques, Fosse says. Some just require you to assert yourself, and it’s helpful to know the difference.

If you’re facing a patron who is asking inappropriate questions like “where do you live?” or “are you married?” while you’re working, use your voice, face and body language to send a clear, assertive message. “This person isn’t escalated — they are just being inappropriate,” Fosse says.

A good response to personal questions is to simply not answer them and steer the conversation back to your work. “Set a clear boundary that won’t leave the door open to more inappropriate questions,” says Fosse. “Tell this person directly: ‘I am not going to answer that, but I can answer library-related questions,’ or ‘I’d love to tell you about our new books,’ or ‘Did you see this program we have later today?’”

So what does an escalated person look like? In a program scenario, it might be an individual disrupting or making threats, or a group of people gathering in protest during an event. In these cases, you will need to use de-escalation techniques. 

When to use de-escalation techniques

Sure, inappropriate questions are annoying, but what do you do if the person doesn’t follow your lead to a library-focused topic of conversation and it turns into an escalated situation? How do you assess the threat level?

“Situations like this come up all the time,” says Fosse. “It all depends on the context. Is the patron a regular that you know how to handle? Did the person come to the library with the goal of being disruptive? Are you planning a program on a topic that’s divided in your community? Is it common practice at your library to use or call security?” You know your library and community best, so if a problem arises, contextualize the situation to know whether you need to start using some de-escalation techniques.

If possible, it’s ideal to intervene early. For instance, in a programming situation, do you overhear patrons complaining to others or to themselves about the topic? “Intervene right away before the program begins,” suggests Fosse. “Create a rapport with that person, redirect them, and try to get them out of the room by having them write a letter or write their complaints down.” If your program is in collaboration with another organization, have a clear plan with duties for both teams if things start to escalate.

If the situation is left unchecked, there is a chance of quick escalation and danger.

The goal is to make a safe space

When you must move on from being assertive to de-escalating, use these five techniques with the safety of yourself and others as the priority.

  1. Ground yourself. Take a deep breath and think about the situation at play — and your goal. “This is not an opportunity to win an argument,” says Fosse. “This is not the time to convince someone that the LGBTQIA program they’re protesting is important. The goal is not to change minds but to create a safe space and not have someone screaming.”
  2. Assess for safety. Is there a weapon present? Are you dealing with one angry person or a crowd? Do you need to call in security or outside reinforcements?
  3. Show that you are calm. “You can do this through body language by nodding your head and holding your hands in front of your body,” says Fosse. “Demonstrate that you’re not here to argue back.”
  4. Ask, listen and empathize: Agree with what you can, listen, and empathize with what you can. If you have a solution, offer it.
  5. Have the person exit. The escalated person might storm out on their own, and that’s a perfectly fine way to conclude the situation, or they may want to lodge a complaint, or they may calm down.

Give the person an alternate way to have their opinions heard

Let’s say you have a program coming up that might be met with disruptors. “Have a staff member in the audience to scope out any escalated patrons,” suggests Fosse. “Have the staff member speak with this person, bring them to the side and say, ‘Hey, it seems like you have a lot of concerns about this topic or this speaker, do you want to talk about them with me? Let’s step outside of the room to talk.’”

You can also let the escalated person know that they are being heard by writing their concerns down. “Don’t argue, stick to listening,” says Fosse. “If you’re talking a lot, you’re probably not de-escalating. Hopefully, they will leave on their own accord once they feel like they’ve been properly listened to.”

Practice being assertive with the small stuff

“Library staff already have amazing skills in being assertive,” says Fosse. But if you are a person who gets flustered easily in these situations, post a sticky note nearby with common phrases to practice or keep it on-hand to read from. “Giggling and freezing up is a normal reaction,” says Fosse. “I would suggest practicing your assertiveness by making use of low-level situations, such as telling patrons to wear headphones while on the computer or asking them to take a phone call outside. Once you get those mastered, it’ll be easier to be more assertive in other situations.”

You are at the library to be a librarian and do your job – make that clear. Remember that you are allowed to set boundaries, you are allowed to enforce library policies, and if you must tell someone to leave, you have the right to do so.

Memorize some go-to phrases

The following phrases are easy to remember and effective to use in a variety of library programming situations.

  • “Sounds like you have a lot of concerns. Let’s talk about them.”
  • “I can only answer library-related questions.”
  • “That’s not allowed here.”
  • "That’s not OK.”
  • "It’s not OK to talk to people like that.”
  • “If you keep doing that, I will have to ask you to leave the library.”

“The work librarians do is essential,” says Fosse. “We want to keep them safe, the patrons safe and keep libraries a welcoming space for everybody. Just know that when you’re in the midst of conflict, you are doing the best with what you have.”

To learn more about de-escalation training for library staff, visit Defend Yourself Safer Libraries.