Handling Difficult People: When Extra Grace is Required

Difficult people can be confusing and overwhelming to lead, having a framework in place can make the situation easier for you both.

You don't have to be a psychologist, a labor negotiator, a judge, or a marriage counselor to lead a small group but it probably wouldn't hurt. During the last 5 years, in my role as both a small group leader and a participant, I have seen sparks fly, problems fester, and tears flow. And on a few memorable occasions, I have encountered challenging, difficult people who have threatened to bring out the worst in me and the worst in others. At various times, I have lost my temper, shaken my fists, thrown up my hands, paced the floor, prayed for wisdom … and you probably have too. In the midst of my frustration, I have concluded that although there are no "quick fixes," there are more and less effective ways to nurture, encourage, and love well the difficult men and women who find their way to your small group.

At the risk of oversimplification, "difficult people" fall into a couple of broad categories—those who present with more or less garden variety quirks, needs, and challenges, and those who are have what psychologists call character disorders. People in the first group are often capable of and open to making changes, and sometimes their problems are situational. Those in the second group have serious life-long adjustment problems which may be demonstrated by the inability to hold a job, chronic relationship difficulties, problems regulating emotions, and marked inflexibility, among other things. For them, the process of spiritual growth and sanctification is usually a slow and uneven one, as their experience of God and others is often processed through a kind of dysfunctional lens or grid. Individuals in the former category are the most common, but those in the latter category are by far the most challenging. ...

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