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Dealing with difficult people

"I try to get along with John, but we always seem to be on different pages. I try to work with him, but a conflict always arises. Then I feel guilty. I don't like the tension, but I don't seem to understand how he thinks and acts or how to get along with him."

Sound familiar? We all have people in our lives who are difficult to understand, work with, or be around. We say things like, "I'm tired of his pushiness," "She's so picky, " "I can't seem to get him involved."

As long as we live, we will experience conflicts. Some persons are more difficult to get along with than others. They seem irregular to us.

Getting along with people takes effort. It means loving them when we don't feel like it and when they are not lovable.

Understanding the Types of Difficult People

There are several types of difficult people. Each has certain characteristics and requires different responses.


Characteristics: He is zealous to police people's lives. He attempts to force others to conform to his expectations. He's judgmental, an overbearing warden, a meddler in other people's business, and a gossiper.

Response: Personally commit to giving and receiving only good reports. Refuse to give ear to his gossip. Confront him about the facts, and press him toward personal responsibility. Reprove, then rebuke him redemptively.


Characteristics: He is controlling and needs to shape his world. He's domineering, aggressive, hostile, hot-tempered, and intimidating. He's a bully who makes cutting remarks.

Response: Don't argue with him or listen to his opinions. Express your opinions, and don't be intimidated. Demonstrate strength without argument, and give him room and time to respond.


Characteristics: He is noncommittal, postpones decisions, ignores issues, and wants all the facts.

Response: Let him voice his concerns. Use face-to-face settings, offer alternatives, press for agreement in stages, and press for decision and action.


Characteristics: He gripes but takes no action. His gripes may be real concerns, or he may feel powerless and refuse responsibility.

Response: Let him blow. Acknowledge his concerns, but don't agree or empathize. Ask problem-solving questions. Don't allow complaints to go unsettled.


Characteristics: He is negative and always says, "It won't work." He's critical, cynical, a wet blanket, a negative influencer, and an impossibility thinker. He finds problems and makes excuses for his lack of responsibility, saying, "It's just the way I am."

Response: Don't give him a platform to complain or make excuses. Counter his negativism with realistic optimism. Don't try to convince him. Work to influence the larger group toward positive action. Don't allow him to sway the group. Kindly express your confidence in him, but point out that change is a choice.

Dead Beat

Characteristics: He won't take risks and is fearful and lazy. He resists change, and he appears apathetic, disinterested, or bored.

Response: Ask open-ended questions and demand more than a yes or no answer. Draw out his perspectives, and press for conclusions and responses. State presumed conclusions to solicit responses.


Characteristics: He is strongly opinionated, competitive, imposing, pompous, and intimidating. He often tries to make others feel foolish or dumb.

Response: Know your facts. Be factual and concrete about the issues. Ask how his facts bear on things, and ask him to restate his views. Allow him to save face when he is inaccurate, and deal with him alone when possible.

Mr. Nice Guy

Characteristics: He has a strong need for acceptance and approval and portrays reasonable support in public. He may be a totally different person in private. He accepts responsibility but doesn't follow through.

Response: Give approval, and help him express his true feelings. Work out task descriptions, and hold him accountable for tasks to help him follow through.


Characteristics: He's unpredictable and tends to be unapproachable. he causes tension, and others are fearful and uncertain around him. He's explosive, insensitive, loud, and cutting.

Response: Be calm and poised. Remove him from the crowd, and give him time to blow. Don't argue or interrupt him. You may need to ask him to repeat the details later. Minimize his exaggerations. Remove hearsay, and deal only with facts, not emotion. Hold him accountable for his actions and those he has hurt.

Sherman Tank

Characteristics: He has a tendency to intimidate others. His "I'm right, you're wrong" attitude is insensitive and difficult to reason with. He strongly influences others.

Response: Assess the degree of influence he has, and evaluate the importance of the issue in conflict. If the issue has a direct or negative effect on others, it may be worth fighting for. Be direct, and be sure you have enough influence to fight for the issue.

Space Cadet

Characteristics: He lives in his own world and marches to a different drummer. He doesn't respond to normal motivations. Most feel frustrated working with the space cadet which causes much confusion.

Response: Don't be concerned about this type. Don't evaluate your leadership by his responses. Don't ask his opinions; don't place him in a team ministry; don't place him in a leadership position. Seek to develop his uniqueness.


Characteristics: He tends to pout, to be full of self-pity, to use moodiness to manipulate others, and to use the silent treatment to get his way. He is sometimes negative, often infantile, and usually irresponsible and hypersensitive.

Response: Tell him that moodiness is a choice. Teach him he is responsible for the atmosphere he creates. Don't patronize or enable his moodiness. Never reward or give undue attention to him. Expose him to people with real problems, and praise his positive ideas and actions. Ignore him when he pouts.

Garbage Collector

Characteristics: He is the most negative type. He gives himself over to negative emotions and loves to replay and nurse his injuries and victimization. He wants to hold on to his wounded spirit and collect negative garbage.

Response: Confront him about trying to speak on behalf of others. When he complains, make him give you names of those he is supposedly speaking for. Challenge his generalizations and exaggerations. If he has created a serious situation that needs to be resolved, expose him to leaders who have the authority to make the necessary decisions.


Characteristics: He manipulates others for personal gain, avoids personal responsibility, and demands time and energy from others. He often uses guilt to get his way and may appear weak and needy to get others' help.

Response: Set predetermined limits. Don't allow him to use others. Require responsibility and accountability, and don't feel guilty or obligated when a firm "no" is the best answer.

Ten Principles for Getting Along With Difficult People
  1. Maintain your confidence by being in right relationship with God. You can't be objective or discerning if you're not in good standing with God. A strong relationship with God gives you the grace and confidence to deal properly with difficult people.
  2. Remember over-reacting will only accentuate the conflict and confuse the issue.
  3. Hold realistic expectations. Make sure the difficult person can reach your expectations. You may be expecting him to do or be something that is impossible.
  4. Quit trying to change the difficult person. Give up your rights and expectations regarding this person. Accept the fact that you can't change him, but you can change your reactions to him.
  5. Refuse to play his games. He may attempt to use you or make you feel guilty or obligated. Recognize the emotional games, and don't participate.
  6. Don't allow yourself to become the difficult person's slave. Be honest with yourself and learn to say no.
  7. Keep a proper spirit and attitude. Maintaining credibility is the greatest struggle. Don't let bitterness, anger, or resentment grow.
  8. Allow God to lead you in dealing with the difficult person. There are no easy answers or set patterns to dealing with him. The Holy Spirit will give guidance.
  9. Confront immediately. Don't put off facing the conflict. It only makes matters worse.
  10. Demonstrate godly compassion. The basis for getting along with people is found in Jesus' words. A religious leader asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment in the Law. Jesus responded, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV).

It's easy to love those who love us and those who are easy to get along with. But how do you treat the stranger, the difficult person, that person you don't really understand, can't relate to and don't really care about? Jesus said that is the true test of our character and love.

Ten Commandments of Confrontation

  1. Do it privately, not publicly.
  2. Do it as soon as possible.
  3. Speak to one issue at a time.
  4. Once you've make a point don't keep repeating it.
  5. Deal only with behaviors the person can change.
  6. Avoid sarcasm.
  7. Avoid words like "always" and "never".
  8. Present criticisms as suggestions or questions if possible.
  9. Don't apologize for the confrontation.
  10. Don't forget the compliments.


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