Dealing with Difficult People

One of the best parts of attending our denomination’s January pastor’s conference is that we get free books.  Donors and publishers are extremely generous to ensure that every pastor has five or six books to carry home.  That usually includes a book on some aspect of biblical interpretation, theology, self-care, historical or contemporary issues, and some other interesting topic. 

Right now I’m reading Will and Spirit by one of my favorite authors, Gerald G. May, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, a superb recommendation I got from a literary agent’s blog.  And I’m reading The Me I Want to Be by John Orberg–the book I got at the conference earlier this year.  I’m reading Ortberg slowly but not because it isn’t good.  It is.

I’m reading slowly because the book is about personal growth, really spiritual growth.  And that’s slow work. 

Here’s a passage from Ortberg’s chapter entitled, “Find a Few Difficult People to Help You Grow” (p. 210-211).  He’s discussing when Jesus told his followers to do more than a Roman soldier could by law ask them to do.  If the soldier said walk the obligatory mile, you, at the end of the mile, offer to go further.  Go further with people in power.  Go further with difficult people and what happens?  You become more human, a better version of yourself:

Often when someone is difficult to me, I want to think of them as deliberately unlikable rather than as a real person with their own story.  A friend offered to introduce English essayist Charles Lamb to a man whom Lamb had disliked for a long time by hearsay.  “Don’t make me meet him,” Lamb said.  “I want to go on hating him, and I can’t do that to a man I know.”

We can give the gift of empathy.  We remember that the person we don’t like is also a human being.  We put ourselves in thier place.  We take the time to imagine how they feel, how they’re treated.  We ask what would help them become the best version of themselves, and in turn the interaction becomes an opportunity for me to practice becoming the best version of myself.  We actually need difficult people to reach our full potential.

Difficult people enable us to be better.  They aren’t simply to be ignored or rushed passed.  They are people, and when we treat them like people, we become better.  They may not.  They may persist in being difficult.  They may not change.  But we change.  We come closer to being what Ortberg calls, the best version of ourselves.

I’ve noticed that I like for people to change more than I like to change.  It’s easier for me to watch and push and encourage (or manipulate even) the movements of somebody else.  Especially when someone else is difficult.  But there’s something deeper when they don’t change.  Something scarier.  And that is my own change.

I spend a lot of good time thinking about how to help people change.  And that spent time is not a waste.  But it’s always harder and more painful to query my own insides.  After all, I am a pretty difficult person too.

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