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.