Look Before You Heap! – Five Lessons in Dealing with Difficult People

Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com
Photo courtesy of ethicsalarm.com

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 20b-21 (NIV)

God often provides us with, ahem, “character development opportunities” disguised as difficult people.  We can avoid some difficult people, but others we cannot because they are work colleagues, bosses, or perhaps even reside under the same roof.   God afforded me one of these opportunities over the past year, having to interact with a difficult person that I could not otherwise avoid.  I have had to learn, and in some cases, relearn the following lessons that I want to share with you:

  1. Pray for the good of the difficult person.  This is certainly easier said than done.  We are tempted to pray for the demise of those we deem as our enemies.  We’d prefer to look to some of the prayers of David in the imprecatory Psalms where he prays for the destruction of his enemies as our model prayers.  Instead let’s look to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the early church concerning treatment of their enemies found the verses at the beginning of the post.   Paul says by treating an enemy, i.e. difficult person, well, we’re actually “heaping coals of fire on his head.” The New Living Translation interprets the colloquialism this way, “they [your enemies] will be ashamed of what they have done to you.”  The Apostle does not write it, but certainly implies that if we treat our enemies harshly, we will end up feeling worse in the process.  I can tell you from personal experience that thinking ill of the difficult people in your life does not make you feel better, but ironically worse.
  2. Do not vilify the difficult person.  It is easy to see the difficult person as the devil incarnate, an all grown up version of Rosemary’s baby.  We may seek out others who share our views about the difficult person to validate our own feelings.  Seeing the difficult person as a caricature devoid of any redeeming qualities makes it easier for us to hate them.  Truth be told, there are very few sociopaths among us.  The difficult person in your life is not likely the next Hitler, Stalin or Kim Jong-il.
  3. Do not read ill intent into the difficult person’s action.  It is easy to construct a narrative reading ill intent into the difficult person’s actions.  This narrative may be based on our previous interactions with the difficult person, coupled with our distorted views based on past hurts we’ve experienced.  The leadership consulting practice, Gap International has coined a phrase for our collection of thoughts about others – files.  Think of a cabinet stuffed with manila folders, filled with papers.  These files frame all of our interactions with the difficult person.  If we hope to find some common ground with the difficult people in our lives, we must purge the files we have about them.
  4. Pray to see the difficult person in your life as God sees them.  You might see a difficult person in your life as your own personal nemesis, but God sees him or her as a hurt, wounded individual in need of salvation, grace and healing.  You may be familiar with the phrase, hurt people, hurt people.”  The difficult person in your life may be acting out of their own pain and hurt, and you just happen to be in way.  If you see the difficult person in your life as a hurting individual, you will more likely show compassion to him or her. 
  5. Set appropriate boundaries with the difficult person.  Seeking the difficult person’s good does not mean you have suffer harm as a result.  You should seek your good and the difficult person’s good simultaneously.  If you suffered harm from the difficult person in the past, it will mean that you must courageously set boundaries to guard yourself against future harm.  If you struggle in this area, I would recommend as a first step you read the excellent book, Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

We all want the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, but the fruit must be cultivated.  It does not just magically appear.  In nature, fruit trees must be planted and tended carefully, sometimes for years before fruit appears.  The deep furrows your soul may be suffering now will yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness later, if you allow them to do so. (Hebrews 12:11).

I’ve listed five lessons I’ve learned in dealing with difficult people, but I’d love to hear yours.  Please leave your comments.

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  1. Thank you for the encouragement regarding boundries. I have never read the book, but maybe I will this year. I do set boundries even with family members who tend to be difficult. While I try to be as kind as possible, those prickly people are just not easy to cuddle! It takes time to discover whether I am the prickly person, they, or both of us! Sharing on FB.

    1. Thanks for the FB share. I thought it was important to include something about appropriate boundaries. Unfortunately some folks think that Christianity = doormat. God does not endorse domestic violence.

      1. Brother Stith, I had to do a favor for a grandson who lives just a block away and when I walked in the door my daughter was distrought with a “friend” (a rather lopsided friendship) that she is attempting to help. I told her to stop about two weeks ago, but did she listen? My daughter has enough on her plate with a husband who works from home and sometimes seems underfoot, a toddler, and four boys who are homeschooled. So I told her again–set some boundries! We cannot put band aids on everyone’s ouchies. Then I directed her to read your post since I’d posted it on facebook. Then I took my grandson to band practice. Now I have to set my own boundry to just sit back and see if or how this person will work through her valley of self inflicted depression. So, thank you again. Glad I found you via wordpress. I get frustrated with myself because it seems the mother in me never stops.

      2. Speaking as a parent, I think our children are the toughest to set boundaries with. I’ve often think about the father in the parable of the prodigal son. The father set appropriate boundaries with his wayward son & did not attempt to rescue him. Yet the father also welcomed the son back unconditionally. What a beautiful picture of our Heavenly Father deals with us.

  2. Kerry, I read this two minutes after I listened to the second of two rambling, complaining voice mails from a difficult person in my life. My instincts were to do/think just the opposite of the five wise suggestions you made–but you brought me up short and I am now (with a heavy sigh, I’m afraid) coming in the opposite spirit to bless and pray for her and ask God to show her to me through His eyes. No one else in her life seems to be doing that; she has driven them all away–so all the more, I need to be that person that does not give up on her (although I need to be sure to have good boundaries)!

    Thank you. And thank you for coming to my blog so I could know about yours.