7 Ways to Handle Difficult People
Updated: Jan 2, 2018
A friend of mine sent me an email about the challenges he is facing in leadership in a non-church setting. He described his frustration with "stubborn" people, i.e. those unwilling to grow, change, or follow his lead. Below is my response:
This can certainly be difficult and disappointing. Here are some things I've learned in 20 years of pastoring.
Make sure my expectations are set properly. Sometimes I expect people to always agree and be agreeable. That’s just not reality. Having a more realistic view of people has helped me to not be so frustrated because now I expect that difficult people will always be around. By God’s power, I have to become stronger and not so overwhelmed by them. Jesus himself experienced this same thing and even got frustrated with people’s stubbornness (Mark 8:14-20) (yet did so without anger or sin). Though its never easy, I have to accept this as a part of life and leadership.
Be sure of what you're doing. When I’m unsure or I don’t have good reasons for the things I’m doing (and therefore can’t really explain them to others) I set myself up for critique. Am I doing this for myself or for the church? Is this about my will or God’s Will? These are important questions and God can use conflict to reveal our poor motivations. I have to know what and why I’m heading in a certain direction… and if God uses stubborn people to show me I’m heading the wrong way, my stubbornness, or my need to learn; then I have to be humble enough to adjust. I cannot ask others to change if I am unwilling.
Don’t take it personally. If you’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way, their stubbornness is not about you and your failings— it’s about them— their lack of experience, knowledge or unwillingness to change. Keep the perspective that most people who disagree with you are good people. They just see things differently. Don’t let them ruin your understanding of people in general or cause you to develop a hardness of heart where you don’t love, respect or appreciate people. Draw a line in your heart between what to own and take responsibility for, and what to assign to their lack of knowledge and unwillingness. They may not know, appreciate or understand the things you do… and some never will.
To be a leader is to be misunderstood. People see leaders as easy targets. Everyone feels they can do you job... and some feel they can do it better than you. Some will make the situation and your decision personal toward you. They will doubt your motivations and your heart. They will judge your character and assign meaning and intention to the things you do that are not meant or intended that way at all. They will not give you the benefit of the doubt. They are unwilling to learn; unwilling to be teachable; unwilling to improve or grow. This is just true of a percentage of people and being misunderstood is true about the nature of leadership.
Influence them. Try to locate “points of influence” where you can change their mind and address their concerns. For example, some people just want to be informed. They may be cautious types and need lots of information and time before making a decision. Some just want to be included in the discussion. Others respond relationally and emotionally— try to show genuine care and concern for all. Make sure people know that despite your differences you love them.
Outlast them. There are some you will never convince. If you feel called to what you’re doing, determine you will not give up. I have learned to simply outlast people who are obstinate. Once people know that you are not going anywhere, that you feel called, and that you are sure your decision is the right one under God, then this helps them to work with you or leave. If they leave, then this is an opportunity for them to be in a place where they can trust and follow leadership. It is a way of achieving the Lord’s will for them and for you. In this fact, you can celebrate God's activity and the good that can come to all through this trial. Endure!
If you have to and can, remove the unwilling. Most people would gladly exchange the effectiveness of the organization as a whole for their own comfort, convenience, stability, and control. They would allow the whole to suffer rather than change. This is often based upon an inability or unwillingness to see how they may be hindering the organization in the first place. You as the leader cannot allow the whole to be harmed because of the unwillingness of one individual. They must be willing to grow, change, be placed in the right role for them, or be withdrawn from the organization by leadership. Have the courage to make the tough call.