Dot was an ornery woman. I had just transferred work locations, and I was being given the tour. Introductions to the staff, learning where everything was located, etc. When I was introduced to Dot, that was the description whispered to me as we approached her. She was an older woman, who had been with the company since it’s inception. Her employee number was a single digit (mine was over 7 digits long). I realized quickly that she was someone who should have retired a long time ago. She smiled at me as we were introduced, but quickly that smile turned to a scowl as she barked orders at a fellow employee who had passed by.
The thing about me is that I see people like this as a challenge. In that moment where her smile turned to a scowl, the challenge was issued… and I accepted.
For the next year, I poked that bear every single day. I was going to make her smile, I was going to make her laugh. She was going to like me, and I was going to like her.
I learned a lot about Dot. I learned that she was married and had a son. I learned that her husband went in for routine surgery, and died. About two years later, the same happened with her son.
Dot was alone. Dot was still grieving. Dot was angry with God.
This would culminate into a woman who was very, very difficult. She wasn’t pleasant to be around. To be brutally honest, she was MEAN. She wasn’t respectful to others, no one wanted to be around her, and she made life difficult for every employee in that building. Despite her attitude toward others, the more we unraveled about her … the more compassion and empathy people had toward her. It took one person willing to invest some time in trying to break through her wall, to understand who she was and what she had gone through. The softer their hearts grew toward her, the more she began to let her guard down. She was starting to smile more, and then began to laugh… a lot.
It first revealed itself when she fainted during a morning meeting, and she was able to see the concern that everyone had for her. It was several of the men on staff that insisted she leave with the paramedics, and one even followed her to the hospital. Several years later, Dot was waiting for the building to open and she was brutally assaulted when a man robbed her. The staff surrounded her during her recovery and sat with her during the trial. Due to the injuries she sustained and her age, she was unable to return to work. That didn’t keep the staff from rallying around her until the day she passed away.
Dot was a difficult person. She was raised to be tough. Circumstances made her hard.
What I have observed over, and over again, is that people who are difficult are rarely so for no good reason. Something has happened in their life that has shaped who they have become. It could be a result of childhood trauma, abuse & mistreatment, discrimination, suffering, or even just a culmination of smaller difficulties in their life.
When dealing with difficult people, my first response is always:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
In order to do so, I remind myself that there is a reason why they are such difficult people. I would rather assume that, then accept that they are choosing to intentionally behave this way.
I will always be nice & respectful, regardless of how mean or disrespectful they are to me.
I will give the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming the worst, about them as a person.
There will be times, however, where no matter how nice we are … the person is bent on being difficult, angry, mean, hateful, etc.
- Limit Time : You do not have to spend every waking hour with this person. Limit your time around them to only the occasions where you must be present. Get your task done quickly, and leave. Also, avoid giving them presence in your head once you are not around them. Do not spend a moment thinking about their negativity, or replaying that day’s encounter.
- Pray Regularly: If we are going to assume that there is a reason they have turned out the way they are, then we ought to be praying for them. Choosing to pray for someone who is difficult is different than replaying that day’s encounter. Praying for them is a positive action, that comes from a place of love and compassion for God’s creation. We can pray for a person while creating boundaries that keep ourselves emotionally & mentally healthy.
- Involve Authority: I am not suggesting that you call the cops on someone who is just being cranky all the time. However if you must work or serve with this person, and their attitude is creating problems in your workplace or in the ministry… involve your manager at work, or your leader/Pastor if it is within the ministry service.
Some practical advice for the every day:
- Keep your answers short, sweet, and too the point. Answer their questions, assign their task, and move on. You can be polite, respectful, and even nice without engaging in their negativity.
- Purposefully go out of your way to do something nice for them, even if they don’t deserve it. This doesn’t have to be an every day thing, but a simple pat on the back for doing a good job, a card on their birthday, etc. are small gestures that can mean a lot.
- Do not feed their attitude by being exclusionary. If your team is going out to dinner, you invite the person. They are part of the team, it is the right thing to do. Let the difficult person decided if they are going to come or not.
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For you will heap burning coals on his head, And the LORD will reward you
In the verse from Proverbs above, I am reminded that when I am good to a person who is my enemy… it affects them. It may even convict them of their poor attitude toward/about me. When we are nice to those who don’t deserve it, it softens their hearts. That process can take a very, very long time and will require copious amounts of divinely given patience.
God has loved us far more than we deserve, shouldn’t we at least, in kind, love His children (our brothers and sisters in Christ) in the same way?
Christ, at the crucifixion, even prayed for God to “forgive them, they know not what they do”. His love and compassion fell on the heads of those who drove in the nails.
What right then do we have to be angry with those who we view as enemies? Or, to mistreat those who are being difficult to get along with? Are we being Christ-like in how we respond to them? Are we following the scriptures? Or, are we giving into our flesh?
Keep in mind, however, that the heart of our intentions will also be revealed. If we are being nice as a show to others, we are not being sincere. If we are being nice to make the person feel guilty or convicted, we are not being sincere. At some point that insincerity will be revealed to those around us. Others will know it was just a show, not authentic. It won’t change that difficult person, it will damage our relationship with others, and it will ultimately have a negative affect within ourselves.
When we respond in kindness to difficult people with sincerity, we are being Christ-like, we are being obedient, and we are being genuine. Over the long term, it will have a positive affect on those around us, including our own selves.