There are a few things in life that we can count on: death, taxes, political discord and the need to deal with difficult people. We hope that death comes late, that taxes are low and that disagreement among our leaders will have little impact on our lives, but we can be sure that dealing with those who are difficult will always be, difficult. While I can’t do much about the first three, I do want to provide some perspective on the last one. How do we deal with the difficult people in our lives?
First, define what we mean by “difficult people”
Difficult people may be only SOMEWHAT difficult, they may actually mean to do us real harm, or fall somewhere in between. We need to acknowledge that not everyone we struggle with is a difficult person since every relationship will have moments of friction, but there are a few categories of people in our lives that can definitely be classified as “difficult”:
- The Disagreeable: This person always has a reason to disagree. They either know more, have experienced more, or are going to do more than you. Your life and your thoughts are “cute”, but, “Let me tell you what I think (or have done or are going to do).” We may like this person but because they are so focused inward they are very difficult to have a deep relationship with.
- The Emotional: Every (at least most) decision and action is an emotional response to whatever is happening in their life right now. This person is difficult to deal with because every reasoned explanation is met with, “I know that what you are saying is true, but this is how I feel.” They are very unstable and live in a constant state of being overwhelmed.
- The Injured: Every relationship in life is viewed through the hurt of the past. Grace is seldom extended from this person and “the benefit of the doubt” is withheld. The injured person is waiting to be hurt again and is convinced that everyone is trying to get one over on them. Everything is personal.
- The Malicious: This person, for some reason that may be unclear, wants to do you real harm. They work hard to ruin your reputation, tear down what you have built (a business, family, relationship, etc.) and act as emotional terrorists in your life. You just want them to go away, but it feels like they never will.
- The Jerk: What can I say about a jerk? If you know that they are, either stay away or stop complaining when they act like one!
Second, understand what is really going on
It is very easy to make the difficult people in our lives the enemy. We can, if not careful, become worse than those we are struggling with by assuming that they are simply against us. While this is true of some, it is not true of all. Before we decide how we will deal with difficult people we need to step back and try to understand what is really going on. A few thoughts:
- It is always a good practice to ask if, just maybe, we are part of the problem. It is amazing how many times in my life, when dealing with a difficult person, I realized that I am the difficult person! A good rule of thumb is this: If everyone in your life is a problem, the real problem is probably you. If this is the conclusion that you come to, acknowledge the truth, turn from the error, move forward, and watch the “difficult people” disappear.
- Believe the best in the difficult people in your life until they prove otherwise. I Corinthians 13 tells us that love is patient, kind and doesn’t think evil. We need to believe that communication, or education or simply being patient will allow us to work through whatever difficulty we are having. Ill intention may come to light, but believing the best allows us to work toward a solution.
- Attempt to see life from the perspective of the difficult person. Sometimes, just understanding where they are coming from, how they were raised, their own struggles and relationships and the pressures in their life will allow us to respond to them with empathy. We tend to look at life from our own perspective, but we should at least attempt to look at it from the other side.
- There really are some hurtful people in the world and when steps 1-3 come up short, it may be time to acknowledge it. Most people do not fall into this category, although we would probably put most difficult people here, but there are some that really want to do us harm. If you find yourself dealing with this type of person I encourage you to understand what you are actually dealing with.
- As much as possible do not take what they are doing as a personal attack. It is not you that they hate, but people like you. Those that seek to do harm to another persons family or reputation are broken people who are looking for a target.
- Do not respond emotionally to them, as much as you want to. I called them emotional terrorists because, just like a terrorist, they only win if they push you to respond. Do not play their game. Realize that the problem is theirs and not yours.
- Don’t be embarrassed or withdraw. Hurt is real and you need real people who care about you to speak truth into your life. Find those people and lean on them.
- Don’t share with everyone. Keep your circle small so that the people you are sharing with can actually help. More voices are not necessarily more helpful. Be intentional about where you ask for help.
Next, go through the process
It is important to understand how you are going to deal with difficult people before (whenever possible) you have to deal with them. This is not always possible, but when you can it allows you to decide what you will do before the emotion of doing so takes over. Thinking clearly and graciously under pressure can be difficult which makes settling on a clear process ahead of time important. I will outline a few things here that will hopefully serve as a guide to you, but I understand that every situation is a little bit different. In Matthew chapter 18 we are given a process for those in the church to resolve conflicts, but many of the conflicts in our lives will be outside of the church and not all of the steps necessarily apply. With all of this in mind I offer the following:
When the difficulty does not come from a malicious desire to hurt:
- Communicate! We live in a day of virtual communication through text and messenger where the meaning of our communication extends no further than emojis and punctuation allow. Whenever possible communicate in person but if necessary speak on the phone. So much of what we deal with in relationship issues is a simple lack of understanding because of a lack of clear communication. Communicate!
- If the difficulty or tension between you and the other person is too much for calm, intelligent conversation to take place, include a third person. When choosing this person find someone that you both trust and that can act as a mediator. They are not a judge, but a mediator who should ask the right questions and get to the truth.
- Be honest! Be quick to ask for forgiveness in the areas that you may be wrong. You cannot control what another person does, but at the very least you want to leave the situation having done right.
- When speaking, share what you see as the difficulty without assigning blame. The goal is to come to common ground so that you both understand clearly the real issues. Share what you are dealing with and ask the other person to help you understand their position.
- Work toward the goal of reconciliation but understand that not every issue you have with another person will be resolved. Sometimes the best that you can do is seek forgiveness where needed, attempt to understand and reconcile and then leave knowing that you did everything you can do.
- If no real resolution happens, remain open for a resolution or reconciliation in the future. You do not need to allow yourself to be abused by another person, even if that is not their goal, but remain open to the possibility that one day you will be able to resolve your issue. You do not necessarily need to separate as friends, but you should not separate as enemies either.
When malicious intent is present (assuming there is no fear of physical harm):
- Confront the person that is attempting to hurt you, preferably with another person who is both a witness and someone to keep you from responding poorly.
- Let the confrontation be clear, direct and brief. They need to understand that you do not want the behavior to continue, that this is not a discussion, and that you are leaving.
- Refuse to engage with them on an emotional level. Eventually they will stop if you do not respond. As badly as we want to respond to those who are attempting to hurt us, that is exactly that they want. Don’t answer, don’t engage, and whenever possible block their messages. You do not need to suffer the emotional trauma of dealing with someone who wants to hurt you and your relationships.
- As mentioned above, seek help and support from a close circle of friends. These people should have your best interest in mind, be spiritually mature, and help you to move forward not pull you back into the conflict.
- If the problem persists get help from a mature person who can help navigate next steps. Since each situation is different it is impossible to say what those may be ahead of time, but a mature person can help you to navigate that so that you can move forward.
In all of this it is important to seek the Lord in prayer allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you into truth (John 16:13). Let truth and not emotion guide your steps and seek to grow through difficulty while allowing yourself to help others.
Dealing with difficult people is never easy, but it does not have to dominate your life. See things clearly and act deliberately. As you do, God will be glorified and you will make an impact in the lives of others!