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It's probably true that the most difficult person I lead is me.
That might be true about you too.
But beyond that reality, there are those who seem to be genuinely unaware of the negative impact they have on others around them. A few appear to get a strange sense of satisfaction from creating problems and pushing other people's buttons.
These difficult people might be volunteer leaders, vendors, coworkers, staff members or even family members. It can be almost anyone you are responsible for leading.
When you allow difficult people to "get away with it," any environment can become toxic.
So how can we better lead difficult people and survive to tell our grandchildren the stories?
Let's start with what doesn't work.
5 common responses to difficult people that do not work:
- Avoid the person and the situation.
- Give in and surrender. Give them what they want. Let them have their way.
- Allow the behavior to continue. You don't give them what they want, but you allow them to continue with negativity, gossip and more.
- Pass the buck to someone else to handle the situation.
- Power up and conquer.
Scripture gives us insight to a better way. Romans 12:18 says, "If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men."
The context in this chapter, starting with verse 9, is loving people. Verse 17 says, "Repay no one evil for evil," and verse 19 says, "Do not avenge yourselves."
The passage provides, in principle, the practical insight we need to deal with difficult people according to God's heart.
It's a "soul set" for how we see people. Especially when you read verse 17, "Commend what is honest in the sight of all men."
Here's a great practical summary:
- I am responsible for how I treat others.
- I may not be responsible for how they treat me.
- I am responsible for how I react to those who are difficult.
Set your heart first:
1) Difficult isn't a disease.
Don't run from difficult people you need to lead. It's natural to recoil from difficult people, but it doesn't help.
While it may be counter-intuitive to move toward difficult people, it's important to accept that it's part of your responsibility as a leader.
It's easy to love your friends and followers, but the real test of your leadership is how you influence those who test you.
2) Forgive and let it go.
One of the most disheartening situations in ministry is pastors, staff and key volunteer leaders who become hurt, bitter and full of regret.
This may primarily relate to the more extreme situations, but it still happens all too often. Forgiveness isn't easy, but it's always the best path.
Practical points for leading difficult people:
1) Discover what is underneath.
When a person becomes difficult, and the situation seems to persist, try setting the issue aside and take the conversation to a more personal level.
Get "underneath" the obvious to discover if there is something deeper. My favorite go-to question is "What is really bothering you here?" It's important to ask that question in a kind and caring way.
When you connect with the real issue, it's much easier to love and lead someone.
2) Manage your own emotions well.
It's vital to remain emotionally self-aware and in control. When you lose control, you lose.
This does not mean to become bottled up and detached, but of all the things that could make the list in the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22)—love, joy, peace, kindness, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness gentleness—self-control is included!
When you become angry, you forfeit your leadership.
You can't stop someone from pushing your buttons, but you don't have to descend to their level.
Here's a practical plan for when a difficult person is getting to you.
- Count to 5.
- Lower your volume.
- Sit back in your chair.
- Speak deliberately.
- Call time out if you need to.
Hot heads never win in the long run.
3) Set limits and boundaries.
So far, I've emphasized our approach with difficult people: how we manage our heart, thoughts and emotions.
But some people are just plain difficult nearly all the time. We don't want to be around them, and it can be hard to love them.
Boundaries and limits are healthy and necessary. Here are the boundaries I use.
My first boundary is respect. The person can disagree with me, and express dissatisfaction with my leadership, but it must be respectful.
My second boundary is alignment. We need to agree on the overall mission and head in the same direction. It cannot become all about their personal agenda.
My third boundary is progress. Difficult conversations are part of leadership, and it's not uncommon to get stuck for awhile. But soon we need to make progress.
4) Communicate clear expectations.
Setting clear expectations is vital to working with a difficult person.
Think through what is needed for a healthy relationship and progress in ministry, and make that clear.
5) Lead them to higher ground.
This is your opportunity to encourage and inspire.
It's not about selling and winning. Don't close a deal like you're in sales.
Help them see themselves and the situation differently and for their good!
- Establish common ground.
- Communicate their value. Affirm the person.
- Point toward the bigger vision.
- Warn them of the consequences of continuing on the same path.
6) Pick your battles.
Sometimes people will knock on your door with the intention of "picking a fight." And sometimes the situation escalates to the level of a battle.
Always ask yourself, does this battle need to be fought? Sometimes it's important to set it aside to climb a bigger hill.
7) Focus on solutions.
Resolution of some kind is needed.
Productive solutions are best.
The worst thing is to leave a situation in a mess. Someone needs to clean it up. If you don't, someone else must.
Two crucial questions that help bring insight and resolution:
- What would you like me to do differently?
- What do you want?
When you know what the person wants, you can be clear about whether or not you will be able to comply. In the end, sometimes you must say no and hold your ground. And sometimes you should remove the person from leadership.
There will always be difficult people you are responsible for leading. How you lead them can change you, them and the church for good!
Dan Reiland is the Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY.
This article originally appeared at danreiland.com.
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