Leading Difficult People

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. And there are a few who appear to get a strange sense of satisfaction from creating problems and pushing other people’s buttons.

These difficult people might be a volunteer leader, a vendor, a coworker, a staff member, even a family member. 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:

  1. Avoid the person and the situation.
  2. Give in and surrender. Give them what they want, let them have their way.
  3. Allow the behavior to continue. You don’t give them what they want, but you allow the person to continue with negativity, gossip, etc.
  4. Pass the buck to someone else to handle the situation.
  5. Power up and conquer.

Scripture gives us insight to a better way:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

The context in this chapter starting with verse 9 is loving people. Verse 17 says “don’t repay evil for evil,” and vs. 19 says “don’t take revenge.”

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, “be careful to do the right thing.”

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 live with 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 fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, kindness, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, self-control is included! (Galatians 5:22)

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. T. 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 in 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!

8 thoughts on “Leading Difficult People”

  1. Rolf-Joachim Otto

    Thank you, I needed to hear (read) this. This is useful advice, not only for a church leader, but for leaders in general. I recently had to face such a situation and, I am afraid, handled it wrong, at least initially. If it was not for the guidance of a more experienced person, it would have escalated out of hand. Thanks again, I will definitely take what you said to heart.

  2. You provide great advice for managing conflict in ALL relationships, not just leadership situations. Thanks for your insights from years of leading all kinds of people. I currently have a challenging situation with a family member. I’ve been reminding myself is to value the person enough to agree to disagree, and let it go for the sake of the relationship.

  3. Eddie Anderson

    There is a lot to take in here and a lot to reflect on; I appreciate the post because this is an area of weakness that I definitely need to improve in; like many people, my natural tendency is to avoid conflict if at all possible and the result is that many times I do not have the tough conversations with people when they need to happen; what I’ve learned is that many times we do not want to be accused of being judgmental by confronting people and there is this fear that we will be the one labeled as the bad guy. I like the comments about setting your own heart: make sure the problem really is with the other person and not with my own attitude and do I have the best interest of the other person and the team at heart. If the conflict is with a peer, or someone that I don’t lead directly, then I must also evaluate to some extent the level of trust and respect I have with that person and am I willing to risk that particular relationship for the good of the team, if the person does not respond in a positive way. These are difficult things for many churches to do; somewhat easier in the secular business culture but still difficult; my wife has worked in the children’s ministry at our church for many years and I know there is a culture there that “well, we can’t fire someone, because it would not look good for a church to do that.” so they end up allowing those behaviors to continue sometimes for many years. Thanks Dan, this is a really good subject and opportunity for growth. Definitely a good reminder that growth is a process and a journey, not a destination.

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