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How should we deal with difficult people?
Some people in our lives may be difficult simply because they challenge us. Or they may be difficult because they are different. Or they may be difficult because we live with them (and close proximity amplifies foibles). Or they may be difficult because we are difficult and something about us just rubs them the wrong way.
Or they may just be difficult.
Regardless, by growing in holiness we can learn to accept the inconvenient, the incongruent and the bothersome (people and events) in our life not just as necessary nuisances but as gifts.
Heather King writes:
[W]hen we are open and receptive to all the world has to offer, and all the world has to teach us, then everything becomes illuminated from within.
Then we see that everything is, or can be, connected to our quest for beauty and order. Everything “belongs”: old dolls, decrepit diaries, discarded buttons. Difficult people.
Seeing difficult people in such a positive light seems like a tall order. But we can start by learning to deal with other people in a Christ-like way.
Scripture teaches us some ways that Jesus dealt with difficult people:
- Jesus Asks Questions: In Chapter 12 of Luke, Jesus is asked to settle a family dispute and basically responds, “Who do you think I am, Judge Judy?” (a loose translation). It is interesting to note that Jesus asks a lot of questions in Scripture. Jesus’ questions were sometimes rhetorical, or challenging, and at other times he was also seeking feedback. By using questions, Jesus emphasizes his openness to the other person.
It is funny, but we humans tend not to ask a lot of questions. We assume, we pontificate, we lecture, we observe, we interrupt and we judge. But we rarely make it a point to ask other people questions. In using questions frequently, I think Jesus is modeling the behavior of a good communicator, one who cares about the other person enough to engage with them and challenge them. Even, and perhaps especially, when they are being difficult.
- Jesus Is Never Cornered: In Chapter 6 of Luke, Jesus is taking a Sabbath stroll with his disciples and the Pharisees pop up out of nowhere and accuse them of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain. Jesus is unflustered. He is never scared of the people who try to slip him up or think the worst of him, because what other people think is not his focus.
Sometimes people corner us with their assumptions and judgments and we can begin to wonder if the way they see us is more objective than how we see ourselves. It is hard when we feel like others misunderstand us or do not take the time to get to know us before judging. But, like Jesus, we do not have to feel defined by the projections of other people. Our identity resides and is found in God, not in what other people try to push on us.
- Jesus Knows When to Ignore: Remember that time when Jesus ticks off all of his former neighbors and friends in his hometown of Nazareth? They are so worked up that they decide to throw him off a cliff. Jesus, seeing that there is no reasoning with these people, walks through the crowd, ignores their rage, and “went on his way” (Luke 4).
Sometimes difficult people throw tantrums, speak harshly or treat us in an abusive way (this happens online all the time). This is the cue to disengage and walk away. Jesus knew how to keep his blood pressure in check and his eyes on the prize. Of course, if we have to deal assertively with someone who does this in person, a face-to-face discussion might help. Later.
- Jesus Is Not Defensive: In Chapter 10 of Mark, James and John say to Jesus: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Wow. Talk about overstepping boundaries! But Jesus is not codependent, so neediness and boundary crossing is not threatening to him. He knows when to say no and when to say yes and does not beat himself up when he doesn’t make other people happy.
Sometimes people can demand more from us than what we can give them. They may try to sway us with guilt trips. Before we know it we find ourselves bending over backward trying to satisfy a needy or aggressive person (who is rarely satisfied!). But Jesus does not try to people please. Jesus does not need to protect himself from other people; God’s will is enough security. This is where his non-defensiveness comes from.
- Jesus Is Flexible: In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman demands that Jesus heal his daughter and Jesus says no. But then he is moved by the woman’s response of faith and heals her daughter. Jesus approaches others with an open mind. Even when he had preconceived notions, he allowed the Spirit to move him and go against his instincts.
When a difficult person approaches us, we may think, Oh great, here we go again, or I know how this will go, but Jesus kept an open mind when he was approached by others. You never know. The Spirit may move you, or the person who is normally difficult, to act in a different, unexpected way. Being closed to others closes us to the Holy Spirit who is working in us and in the other person.
Jesus, help me see you in everyone, even the people who challenge me. Light me up with your radiant love so that I may see you even in the most difficult of people. Every human being is made in your image. Help me to recognize you and love you in them.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her first vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul. She blogs at Pursued by Truth.