Dealing with Difficult People

Conflict with others happens, even when we try our best to get along with everyone. Hopefully, you’ve learned how to bring most of your differences to a peaceful end. Even so, there will always be individuals who seem more challenging to get along with. So, how should we approach these people and situations?


Three Variations

There is an infinite number of ways tension can arise in our relationships, but we can group these into one of three categories.


  1. Injuries. Conflict can result from an injury or the threat of harm at the physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual level. For example, a person who is careless and almost causes an accident will likely trigger a reaction. Speaking to someone in a devaluing and disrespectful way can cause emotional pain. It’s not always necessary that an actual offense occurs; we only need to perceive it that way.


  1. Disagreements and rivalries. Most of the time disagreements over minor, isolated issues won’t cause much of a rift. But tensions can arise when the dispute concerns a serious matter or is part of a recurring pattern. Some people want to turn things into a rivalry. Regardless, the conflict becomes centered around power and control.


  1. Lack of mutuality. Relationships function much better when both parties operate on the same page. But this doesn’t always happen. One person feels like he’s doing all the work while the other seems content to do nothing. One is motivated, and the other is not. Or the emotional response from the other side can seem inappropriate or out of proportion to the situation.


Responses That Makes Things Worse

How do you handle conflict? Here are three ways NOT to do it.


  1. Avoidance. Maybe we’re uncomfortable expressing how we feel, or we’re afraid that saying something will cause irreparable harm to our relationship. Some Christians might tell themselves that they should passively put up with abuse (a misinterpretation of Matt. 5:38-42). Defense mechanisms like denial, rationalization, and projection provide easy outs from facing conflict. Besides not resolving the cause of the conflict, we often end up obsessing over our injuries and allowing emotional energy to escalate, compounding the problem. As a rule, the sooner we deal with the trouble, the better. See Ephesians 4:26-27.


  1. Retaliation. Sometimes we strike back. One approach is to launch an all-out counter-offensive with accusations, put-downs, or threats delivered with high emotion. Or we might employ a less direct method as a kind of guerrilla warfare. Typical tactics include gossip, passive-aggressive behavior, and lack of cooperation. These folks often tell themselves they’re on the higher ground as they self-righteously demean and knock down the other person. See Romans 12:17.


  1. “Expressing yourself.” Most people understand that trying to hold things in can cause problems. Unfortunately, instead of seeking a resolution to the conflict, they think the most important part is just to get their feelings out. This results in emotional dumping, accusatory “you-statements,” and complaining to others instead of speaking with the person with whom they’re having the problem. They focus on expressing their anger without taking steps to find a solution. See Philippians 2:3-4.


A Healthier Way to Resolve Conflict


I’d like to offer a six-step process for resolving conflict, summed up by the acronym, “RAIN-ER.”


Reflect and Pray: Not every occasion affords you an opportunity to reflect on what’s     happening before you have to act. When possible, however, take time to consider the situation at multiple levels—the events, words, emotions, background, and spiritual impact. Besides reviewing your own complaints, try to understand the things from the other person’s viewpoint. Ask God for His help and guidance. See Proverbs 3:5-6; I Thessalonians 5:17.


Assert: Go to the other person and factually state what the problem is without resorting to exaggeration, blame, name-calling, or heaping up a list of infractions. Use “I,” instead of “you” statements, as the latter tend to put people on the defensive and will hinder finding a solution. See Matthew 18:15.


I-Statement: “I’m angry because it seems as though my input doesn’t matter.”

You-Statement: “You ignore everything I say.”


Inform yourself and your partner: Find out what the other person is thinking and feeling. What were their intentions? Don’t assume you know. Most people don’t act only to antagonize you. Try to find a bridge where you can acknowledge one another’s needs and good intentions. See Luke 18:9-14.


Negotiate: Once you understand one another’s positions and motivations, you can try to work together on finding a solution. Offer a fix you can live with. If there is any concern about either of you following through, then set up checkpoints with consequences if one or both of you don’t follow through with your part of the deal. See Matthew 5:21-26.


Execute: Execute your plan.


Re-evaluate: You’ll need to follow up on your progress. Getting things off your chest during the initial confrontation might feel so good that you’re ready to leave it all behind. But the problem may not go away. This means you should soon revisit the terms of your agreement.

Look at the checkpoints. Express appreciation for any progress that has been made, but also be assertive when the other person isn’t making progress. Be consistent with putting your consequences into play. You might discover parts of your plan are flawed and need revision.


Closing Thoughts


Negotiating solutions requires both sides to be motivated. This may be lacking for several reasons. Neither of you may feel like investing much effort into a superficial relationship. Or, one person may have been hurt so deeply or for so long that they’ve built up a wall of resentment. You’ll first need to regain their trust, and this can take months or even years.

We should always seek to forgive the other person, regardless of what they’ve done. Forgiving someone does not mean they’re not held accountable for their actions or that we should now have to get along with them. Instead, forgiveness is a decision to show mercy—to release our need and right to strike back at and destroy the other person. See Matthew 6:21-35.

Finally, there will always be people who will remain antagonistic toward us no matter what we do. With these, we can take a four-pronged approach:


1) Set up healthy boundaries to prevent unnecessary stress and conflict.

2) Return good for evil instead of retaliating.

3) Pray for that person and their healing.

4) Offer up your suffering to God, knowing that He can make good come out of anything.

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