From the September/October 2014 issue of Discern Magazine

Dealing With Difficult People

They are everywhere: on the road, at work, in the grocery line, at church and even in our own family. How can we deal with difficult people in a godly way?

When we think of difficult personality types, we can be quick to attach a label: bossy, rude, know-it-all, phony, whiner, judgmental. These and other words are used to describe and categorize difficult people. Perhaps these labels have even been used on us.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists some additional labels that professional health-care providers use: antisocial, obsessive-compulsive, narcissistic and passive-aggressive, to name a few.

Unfortunately, while they may be helpful in terms of treatment, labels can also prevent us from truly understanding individuals.

See the human being beyond the difficult person

People are more than the labels attached to them.People are more than the labels attached to them. Labels can keep us from truly getting to know a person and finding out how unique and complex he or she really is. No two people are alike, nor are they motivated or shaped by the same things.

Imagine that each person you come in contact with is a puzzle for you to put together. Usually when assembling a jigsaw puzzle you have all the pieces as well as a picture of what you are constructing. But what if you had the picture, but not all the pieces? What if you didn’t even know what pieces were missing or what to look for?

When therapists see new clients, they ask them lots of questions so they have as many pieces of their puzzle as possible. Therapists don’t want to assume anything, and they need to be able to put the difficult parts into a meaningful context. This helps them understand and empathize with the unique individuals these people have become.

In personal relationships, however, we are hampered by social norms and a person’s desire for privacy. What is acceptable in a professional setting becomes nosiness in any other.

So how do we truly get to know and appreciate someone—especially when that person is difficult to be around?

Dealing with difficult people by living by the Golden Rule

We start by realizing there is One who already knows everything about each and every one of us. God sees the complete picture; He has all the pieces; and He truly understands us. His love and compassion for us are not defined by how easy we are to get along with. He loves us despite our difficult parts, and He sets us a beautiful example of how to do the same with others (Romans 5:6-8).

In Matthew 7:12 Jesus tells us to treat others the way we want to be treated, otherwise known as the Golden Rule. This is not always easy to do, because our natural tendency is to retaliate when we have been hurt by the words or actions of another. “Fair is fair,” we might tell ourselves.

But true Christianity is about rising above what our human nature wants to do. It is about living as Jesus lived, for He came to show us a better way. That’s why He shared these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

This is not to say God expects us to allow someone to abuse or beat on us, or to allow someone to take our possessions. Rather, He is addressing the human desire to retaliate or take revenge on difficult people. As much as we might think it is right to “make things even” with someone who hurt us, that is not what we are expected to do. Instead, we are instructed to leave the vengeance to God, who always knows exactly what is best (Romans 12:19).

Dealing with difficult people by giving to others what they DON’T deserve

If God were to give us what we deserve, what would we receive? Since we are all sinners, we are all deserving of death (Romans 6:23). Yet God, in His infinite love, paid the price of our sins through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. He gives each of us an opportunity to have eternal life at the perfect time.

God loves all of us, and He expects us to treat others as He treats us. That’s why He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28, emphasis added throughout).

With God’s help, these four action steps—love, do good, bless and pray—are possible, no matter how challenging someone may be.

Don’t antagonize difficult people

Each of us has “trigger points” that, when set off, can and will bring out the worst in us. When we understand this about someone else, we should avoid pushing his or her “buttons.” Don’t get into pointless debates or arguments or bring up inflammatory subjects (see 2 Timothy 2:23).

We should choose our words carefully.

Everyone knows that you don’t throw gasoline on a fire to put it out—you’ll have an explosion or a raging inferno on your hands! Yet how many times do we inflame a situation with our words? Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” And in Romans 12:18 Paul writes, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”

Change the subject as necessary. If that doesn’t work, perhaps you can politely excuse yourself from the conversation. At other times it may be necessary to be frank and say, “Let’s talk about something else.”

Look in the mirror

Astute observers have noted that we are all somebody else’s difficult person at least occasionally.

Sometimes the reason people rub us the wrong way can be found by simply taking a good look at ourselves and our own motivations. Sometimes the reason people rub us the wrong way can be found by simply taking a good look at ourselves and our own motivations. Some people may, at least outwardly, remind us of past hurts, which can dredge up painful memories. It’s easy to be defensive, until we stop and ask ourselves why we are reacting in that way. In doing so, we may gain some insight about ourselves that will help us in the future.

When dealing with difficult people, look for the best in everyone

Remember, you don’t have all the pieces to this person’s puzzle. There are things about this person you don’t know and/or don’t understand. But God does. He can help you be kind and patient until you discover things to appreciate about the individual.

In 1 Corinthians 13:4 we read that love is patient and kind. We are not naturally that way, but God is. Go to Him in prayer and ask for Him to reveal to you what you need to know—to help you be around this person, to treat him or her with the patience and kindness with which God treats each of us.

Be realistic

Some people are truly damaged, and that damage often spills over and touches others. It may be that their wounds will not be healed in this lifetime, which means that we have to accept the reality and the limitations of who they are.

But though they may never change, we can, by changing our outlook toward them and our way of responding. We should think about the way we usually interact with them. Is there a different, gentler way to respond? Can we replace defensiveness with compassion? Sometimes being polite may be the best we can do, but that’s better than retaliation. Politeness goes a long way in getting along with difficult people.

When all else fails, walk away from difficult people

There comes a time when it’s necessary to distance ourselves from some people—those who for whatever reason always want to antagonize or even harm you. Minimal and even no contact may be the best option in certain situations. God doesn’t expect us to stay in abusive relationships (Proverbs 22:24; also see our article “Toxic Friendships?”).

He does, however, want us to develop His mind to help us to interact with everyone in a more godly manner in the future.

People can be difficult, no doubt, and how they live may tend to bring out some of the worst in us. We need to remember that our natural reaction is not always the best way to respond. God gave us a better way—a kinder, more patient, loving way—to view and interact with others. It’s His way, and it needs to become ours as well.

For additional information about learning to treat others more as God does, see “How to Be a Good Neighbor” and the articles in our section “The Fruit of the Spirit.”

About the Author

Debbie Caudle

Debbie Caudle

From Canada to California and then Wyoming to Texas, Debbie Caudle’s journey has taken a lot of twists and turns, but through it all she’s had a lifelong desire to help others improve their lives. She has worked over 25 rewarding years as a licensed counselor, working with individuals, couples, children and families. This experience has taught her a lot about the challenges people face in conquering their worst fears and hurdling their toughest obstacles. 

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