Can We Talk?

[This content was originally published on December 4, 2017 at The Ink On The Page.]

As a lurking/functional member of social media society, I have recently come across several threads in closed and open LIS online communities that prompt the following thought:

Librarians need assertive communication training. 

I remember in library school, classroom conversations about applying ethics in practice were brief – mainly covering what we’d do to ensure equitable space usage or signage opportunities for “not-so-popular” groups in our various communities. We also had discussions about dealing with difficult patrons – keeping in mind that “difficult patrons” covered everything from the lady who doesn’t want to pay her overdue fines to the guy who wants total and all-day access to the computer(s). 

Issues and laws some perceive to dilute the ALA Code of Ethics – like the Children’s Internet Protection Act, for instance – also make for intriguing and awkward conversations between librarians and library users; after 9/11, the PATRIOT Act also highlights friction between the balance of intellectual freedom and expectations where the protection of public safety are involved. Add to that myriad state and local laws, and even local community customs/norms – and you quickly recognize the host of relationships librarians in all environments and specialties are concerned with forming, navigating and sustaining in order that everyone have equitable access to information, technology, community, etc.

The formation, navigation, and sustaining of these relationships – with our patrons, with our colleagues, with our stakeholders, and with law enforcement – requires us to be able not only know our purview and how it relates to these groups’ expectations – but to be able to clearly state our boundaries with confidence and an expectation of courtesy and professionalism from those to whom we relate. 

I observe that librarians seem to have particular difficulties responding to areas well within their purview because they either:

  • a) don’t have or wrestle with which words to use in order to relay a clear message; 
  • b) (more often the case), are concerned with how they’re feeling about the upcoming discussion; or 
  • c) are concerned with how the listener may feel (about them personally or the library in general) as a result of the conversation; and 
  • d) also concerned about the status of the person to whom they must talk about some unpleasant issue.

Librarians don’t want to be (perceived as) rude or inflexible (Update 1/30/2020 – See Also, Library Nice). Luckily, being assertive is neither of those things! 

Check it – RMIT University’s Counseling Service offers the following definition of assertive and its associated communication style: 

The term “assertive” is used to describe a communication style that is respectful of others but clear and firm in intent. Assertiveness is sometimes confused with aggressiveness – being rude, hostile, blaming, threatening, demanding, or sarcastic is not being assertive – these are all examples of aggressive communication styles. Assertive communication does mean standing up for yourself but doing so in a way that does not trespass on the rights of others and respects your own rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others.

Assertive communication is based on mutual respect for the messenger and the receiver. It uses language that stresses civil focus on the matter at hand rather than judging the people involved in the conversation. It strives to validate both parties and offer clarity on defining problems, coming to solutions, and both parties’ roles in those solutions. 

In ethical spheres, being assertive means that a person’s worries about how they are being perceived does not result in unintentional breaches of professional conduct.

I mentioned my concerns about assertiveness training for librarians a few days ago, and a colleague offered some books that helped her develop her assertive communication style (thanks, Katie!).

I took an assertive communications course years before I became a librarian, and it has helped immensely when I talk or write to colleagues, administrators, employees, and library users – in positive and negative situations.

Have you attended professional development on communication? How have you developed your communication style as a LIS professional? Do you have reading or continuing education resources to share? Leave your comments.

Works Cited

RMIT University (n.d.) Assertive communication. Retrieved from


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