In fourteen years of ministry, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in how I’ve responded to the difficult people I’ve encountered. The frustrated volunteer. The anxious parent in kids church. The co-worker with entitlement issues. Human relationships and interactions inevitably create challenges but there’s a way to foster harmony in any encounter you might face.
Here’s the deal: the church is filled with real people with real problems. I’m not saying a bad attitude is ok but we all have to remember that people make mistakes and at the end of the day, we are called to grace.
Here’s what I’ve learned, along with suggestions some of my pastoral friends have made, to help you when dealing with difficult people.
1. First, expect it.
As I mentioned above, the church is full of real people with real problems; conflict is inevitable. With that in mind, the first step in dealing with difficult people is to expect it. Knowing that it can and will happen should often remove the surprise factor so that you can properly prepare for those situations as they arise.
As my co-worker Erin shared, “...we can give grace to things ahead of time and we are less rattled by it all when it actually happens.”
2. Don’t lose your cool.
It’s easy to get defensive when feeling attacked or misunderstood. But it’s incredibly important to keep your cool in a difficult situation. Chances are, you're a Christian if reading this article. As a result, you are setting an example to others that could either hurt or help your testimony.
If this is a challenge for you, see step number 8.
3. Don’t fuel the fire.
Another big don’t--don’t add fuel to the fire. This goes back to defensiveness and wanting to protect yourself. It easily happens that a situation can escalate quickly with one wrong word.
Hold Proverbs 15:1 with some weight: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but hard words stir up anger.” Remember that a gentle answer can diffuse the problem almost instantly!
4. Swallow your pride.
Sometimes all we can do when the confrontation filter takes over is to protect ourselves--to, in all honesty, put ourselves first. Nobody likes being wrong, misunderstood, or accused of fault. But this is pride and pride only hurts situations and destroys relationships.
When you’re dealing with a difficult person, be willing to own your part and to be the first to offer a gentle word. Our pride makes it so hard but it’s very necessary when working with people.
In addition, be willing to say “sorry.” If you’re at fault, say you dropped the ball. Apologize. Offer the proverbial olive branch and allow for reconciliation to take place.
5. Play the “happy ignorance” card.
If someone says something that might seem a bit critical or inconsiderate, there are times it might be best to pay this card. It means responding in a way that shrugs off the critique rather than making a big deal out of it.
One person I know who uses this technique shared the example:
If someone says to you, “Umm..you’re painting your kitchen yellow??” You say, “Yea! isn’t it great?!”
Brush off a passing criticism and diffuse the situation.
6. Remember their brokenness.
A huge help when working with difficult people is to remember that they are likely broken and hurting. That they are probably struggling with something that overflows into their life.
Truth is, hurt people hurt people. If you can remember their hurt, you’re more likely to respond from a place of grace. Try to reconcile and make the situation better, lifting further burden off of them and setting an example of peace.
7. Shower them with kindness.
Few things diffuse a difficult situation like kindness. It’s hard to remain mad at someone who is being incredibly nice in spite of a bad attitude on the other person’s part.
Take the high road and be a fountain of kindness that saturates the moment with the positive rather than the negative. Hopefully, the other person will soften and respond the same way.
8. Take a break.
Advice often given in healthy conflict resolution is the principle of walking away to get some space and perspective. Doing this allows a person to cool down and gather their thoughts and feelings, in the hope of dealing with the conflict in a healthy way.
I’m one of those people who is better fit for conflict with a small break. If you’re the type of person who needs to gather thoughts or cool down before speaking, don’t be afraid to briefly walk away from the situation and come back collected.
9. Pray for the person.
Prayer has this incredible ability of softening our hearts towards others. If you’re at odds with someone, one of the best ways of responding in a healthy and godly way is by praying for them. It’s hard to be mad at someone you are praying for.
10. ALWAYS Matthew 18 a conflict.
One of the quickest ways of causing division in the body of Christ is by circumventing healthy conflict. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched someone go to people and slander somebody instead of talking to the person directly.
If you have a problem with someone, don’t go tell other people. You may feel you have the purest motives in telling an outside party, but that’s not biblical and it’s wrong. Matthew 18 tells you to go to that person if there is a fault; not a boss, not a pastor, and not anyone period. Bringing another into the situation only takes place when you’ve approached the difficult person without resolution and you feel bringing another they trust into the situation might help them turn from sin.
Would you want someone going to others and saying negative things about you? Probably not. So don’t do it to someone else. ALWAYS Matthew 18 a conflict.
Brittany Rust has a passion is to give encouragement to the world-weary believer through her writing, speaking, and podcasting. She is the author of Untouchable: Unraveling the Myth That You're Too Faithful to Fall, founder of For the Mama Heart, and hosts the Epic Fails podcast. Brittany, her husband Ryan, and their son Roman make their home in the Rocky Mountains, pursuing outdoor adventures, great food, and memorable stories together. Learn more at www.brittanyrust.com.
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