How to Deal With Difficult People

Difficult people.

We’ve all had to deal with them. Whether at work, at home, or at church…if you’re around people long enough, you will eventually come across someone who is difficult.

It’s just like a friend of mine once said, “Pastoring would be the easiest job in the world if it wasn’t for the people.”

So what should we do when we encounter someone who’s difficult?

In church, we typically avoid this type of conflict. Whether it’s in the name of being nice or showing grace, the truth is we’re pretty bad at handling conflict in the Body of Christ.

But we don’t have to be.

We see in the Bible that Jesus did not shy away from confrontation. He flipped tables in the temple (John 2:15-16), He called judgemental religious types ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27), and He even rebuked one of his own when Peter cut off the servant’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10-11).

And if Jesus didn’t shy away from difficult people, neither should we. Here are 4 tips for dealing with the difficult people in your life.

Get Started Fixing It, and Start With You

One of my favorite sayings applies in these situations: “Control the knobs on your side of the wall.” You can’t control other people. You can only control your response to it.

For starters, talk to the person, not about them. As a pastor, I have conversations all the time with people who are struggling to get along with someone else. They’re usually happy to talk about how frustrating the other person is. But when I ask, “Have you told them how you feel?” the answer is usually no.

Next, be honest about how you’ve contributed to the situation. Maybe your coworker seems irritable about a request you’ve made, but your request was made at the last minute. Now they have to drop everything to help. Admitting to yourself and to them your fault in the matter goes a long way to creating peace.

Understand Their Why

Everything is not about you.

Your spouse comes home in a bad mood because of a situation at work. But you interpret their sulky behavior as directed at you specifically and react by attacking.

What they really needed was for you to assume the best of them, and calmly ask if they want to talk about why they’re having a bad day. This gives them the option of talking about it (not everyone wants to process verbally right away), and the chance to explain why they’re not ok.

At work, your colleagues could be dealing with any number of personal problems that affect their job performance. Leading with compassion can de-escalate conflict, and give you the opportunity to show God’s love to someone who may be in great need.

Build Bridges

It may be as simple as finding out where they went to college, or their favorite team, or where they grew up…try to find some small way to build a bridge with the difficult people in your life.

Be sure to listen attentively and ask questions, “What was it like growing up in such a small town?”

Building bridges could also mean you have to open up. Have the courage to be honest about what you really need from them. “My colleague is out on maternity leave and I’m having a hard time getting answers from anyone on this project. Could you help?”

With your spouse, building bridges may be as simple as working backward to get to the place where you both agree on things. “We both agree we want to be wise financially, right? So let’s agree to use our tax return in a way that helps us achieve our long-term goals.”

Be Kind

I know it can be hard, but even when someone is being abrasive and difficult, react in kindness. Have the courage to respond to a harsh word with gentleness and patience.

Think twice before sending that angry email to a colleague.

Stay calm when your spouse disappoints you or hurts your feelings.

You don’t have to avoid a confrontation in these situations, but don’t allow your feelings to cause you to lead with aggression.

Proverbs 16:24: “Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”

One Final Thought:

One of the best ways to stay on the right track in dealing with difficult people is to remember that, on some level, you are difficult people. (It’s ok, I am too.)

Somewhere in your life, somebody found you hard to work with. At times in your marriage, you’ve been the problem. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true nonetheless.

If you can remember all the times people have had to show you grace and understanding, it will go a long way to helping you find the grace and understanding to show to others.

One Response to “How to Deal With Difficult People”

  1. Mary Wall

    In total agreement nowadays after a stretch of having to learn about the role I played in working directly with the needs of the homeless. I had no formal training before I started, but God led me to the non-profit center I work for: The Downtown Hope Center in Anchorage, AK. I learned to not meet aggression
    with aggression, but the bible says “ a soft word turns away wrath”. And it does. People feel what we carry.