How to deal with difficult people? This is probably the question I’m asked most about. I get it, we are seemingly surrounded by “difficult people”. Are there more than there used to be, or is it just me? Is it the stress of life that magnifies the brokenness in people, that even a routine group task can feel like you are navigating a minefield of emotions as you seek to “just get the job done”.
Difficult people show up in all sorts of ways – offensive, loud, rude, dismissive. To make matters worse, they are usually completely unaware of their behavior or how it is impacting others.
My answer to the ‘how’ is perhaps more inward focused than you would like, because the straight answer would be: there is very little you can do to change difficult people, but how you respond to them can change everything!
At the end of the day, defining “difficult” is a uniquely personal thing. What is challenging to me may be a breeze for you. Understanding yourself and what triggers you is as important as your interaction. I soberly remind myself that at times I can be headstrong, focused and single-minded to the point of intimidation and irritation to others, which elicits a defensive response, rather than honest communication.
Mark Rosen says it well: “In the school of life, difficult people are the faculty. They teach us our most important spiritual lessons, the lessons that we would be most unlikely to learn on our own.”
There are also trusted voices within our lives, that we need to listen to in our quest to change. The proverb goes “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17 NIV).
So self-awareness and growing myself is key, and with this understanding I have a few other thoughts to keep in mind when interacting with people:
1. Don’t let people make their issues your issues (stick to the facts).
Most “difficult” people want to make their issue your issue, that is the win for them. So stick to the facts and acknowledge their emotions. People need to know they have been heard. Get clarity and understanding by asking key questions whilst managing your own reactions. Don’t become defensive, it makes it almost impossible to have a positive outcome. I often ask them “what is the outcome you are looking for?” That gets you to the facts which are often hidden in all the negative emotions.
Seek the advice of others. You are not the only person who has had to productively interact with a difficult person. Getting perspective and advice can be beneficial. Sometimes talking it out can help you reframe the situation to a place where you can facilitate a good outcome.
Keep records, if necessary, especially in business. Sometimes, things can be so abrasive and turn into something that you never intended. If interactions begin to get toxic, you need to make an intentional effort to begin documenting things. If things go south, at least you have a good record of what led you to that place.
2. Look through peoples’ responses, don’t just judge on face value.
Emotional maturity is really what we are talking about here. You need to respond maturely, not just to what you may hear, but also to the underlying issue which could be different to what they are saying.
3. Recognise that people’s brokenness often speaks louder than their words.
I have discovered that brokenness in any form attracts more brokenness. People “hear” through their brokenness, so what you said may be perceived as something completely different – they feel hurt and attack. We raised our girls that way – girls can be so cruel, and teaching our daughters to recognise brokenness gave them empathy and understanding when dealing with “mean girls”.
4. Love covers a multitude of issues. Always seek to be redemptive.
The scripture indicates that “love covers” not only issues but even sin. Be determined to be a ‘coverer’. Cover over people’s issues, struggles and brokenness by loving them through them. We are first and foremost to be known for our love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV). Believing in people ALWAYS brings the best out of them, even “difficult“ people. By acknowledging and seeing God at work in them, your response to them changes and you begin to work with God.
My prayer is one that Eric Tocknell taught me many years ago, “Lord please change me, and if you have any time left over, work on them”.