Love the One You're With

How to manage difficult personalities within your small group

The group was new—we had only been together for five or six weeks. That's why I was happy to see a new couple walk into the room. I was also happy to see that everyone greeted them warmly. But about 30 minutes into our meeting, the warm temperature of the group began to cool. The regular members began to exchange looks across the room, and the question on everyone's mind was, "Who invited these people?"

The couple was very nice and quite attractive, and by all appearances should have fit into the group well—but boy could she talk! Once she got started, there was no stopping her. She told stories that only occasionally related to what the group was talking about. These stories started out sounding interesting, and some of them even hinted at having a point. But after another ten minutes, the eyes of group members would gloss over, and the host may as well have brought out a bundle of pillows and blankets.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Every group has them: the difficult personality. They come in all flavors and sizes, and our ability as leaders to manage these personalities is one of the keys to effective small-group leadership.

Introductory Activity

If you're using this article as training material for several group leaders, consider using the following activity to introduce some of the different types of difficult personalities, and to get everyone thinking about their impact on a group. If you're reading this solo, try to imagine how these personalities would impact your own group.

Pick four volunteers, and hand them each a piece of paper with one of the following personalities on them. Ask each volunteer to read their personality out loud.

  • Monopolizing Mike: Mike talks from the moment he enters the room until the moment he leaves. He shares the same stories over and over whether they are relevant to the subject of group time or not. When Mike begins to talk, the group settles in for the long haul and appears bored and restless, and often the energy is drained from the discussion time.
  • Shy Sherry: Sherry seldom shares during small-group time. She has trouble looking people in the eye when she does talk. She attends group regularly, but the group members know very little about her because she has not opened up to them. It's easy to forget that she's even there.
  • Expert Ed: Ed is an expert on every topic you can imagine—especially the Bible. When the group discusses anything, Ed always chimes in with the "right" answer. Once Ed delivers his thoughts or opinions, the rest of the group is reluctant to share anything else, because Ed is clearly always right. Ed begins his sentences with statements like "Clearly, the Bible is saying … " or "Don't you know that it means … ?"
  • Annie the Advice Giver: Annie knows what everyone should do and is always looking for opportunities to share her advice. When a group member shares a struggle, Annie will immediately say, "You should … ." Although Annie desires to be helpful, her advice is usually unsolicited and simplistic.

After each volunteer has read their description, ask them to form a mock group at the front of the room (It's best if they can each wear a large name tag explaining who they are). Next, ask for a fifth volunteer to serve as the group leader for this dysfunctional set of difficult personalities. Give the group leader a section of curriculum and let them all go at it for a set amount of time.

After about 5–8 minutes, interrupt the group and thank your brave volunteers. Then have your group leaders get in huddles and answer the following questions:

  • What did the "leader" do well?
  • What could the "leader" have done better?
  • Brainstorm strategies for handling each of the difficult personalities

Practical Advice

Fortunately, your group doesn't have to be at the mercy of difficult personalities. There are several practical and time-tested methods for easing the discomfort and bringing the group experience back to "normal."

First, as the group leader, you need to be prepared to interrupt when necessary. Sometimes I even say it out loud—"I am going to have to interrupt you now," and then I do it. It may seem cruel at first to cut someone off like that, but the group will thank you for it as the energy level and amount of sharing increases.

Now, obviously there needs to be balance and sensitivity to this when using this technique. Sometimes one person will talk more then others because they are having a "breakthrough" experience, and that's okay. But when dominance becomes a pattern, you need to intervene. Sit close to the person you may need to interrupt and place a hand on their knee or shoulder as a signal that you need to interrupt them.

Second, talk to the person outside the group. Your best chance at a meaningful conversation will come when the other group members aren't around. For example: "Annie, I notice that you like to give advice in group time. I see that you love and care deeply for the others in our group, and I admire that. But I'm wondering if you could limit the amount of your advice. I have found that people really grow when they have to figure out their next steps on their own, instead of me telling them what to do. What do you think about that? How can I help?"

Or, "Sherry, you are very quiet in group time, but I am always interested in what you have to say. Would it be okay if sometimes in group I ask for your thoughts on a particular question?"

Third, affirm appropriate sharing. When the difficult personality has a positive sharing experience, affirm them in front of the group. Also, affirm them later, in private, when group time is over. Say something like, "Ed, when you asked what others thought about the text instead of sharing your opinion right away, it really helped some of our less confident group members open up. Good job."

Next, be prepared to redirect. Sometimes, to move things away from a negative interaction, a leader needs to say, "Thanks for sharing," and move on to another person or another question. Remember, the needs of the group should come before the needs of any one individual. Individuals can get support in a variety of settings—counseling, mentoring, accountability relationships, and so on.

Finally, get help when you need it. The personalities outlined in the examples above are pretty mild when it comes to their overall effect on a group. But sometimes we come across group members who have personality issues that are more severe. Examples include divisiveness, clinical depression, severe marital difficulties, or personality disorders. On these rare occasions, seek the advice of a pastor or ministry director. They can help a person with severe problems get proper advice or counseling.

To conclude, when personalities go unmanaged in group, we risk the potential of the group becoming less effective in the lives of our members. But by keeping on eye on difficult personalities, we are able to facilitate an environment where people can discover the work of God in their lives and choose the next step in their journey.

Janet McMahon is the Adult Ministry Director of Restore Community Church, a NewThing affiliate.

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Leverage Your Passions

Choose a serving opportunity that reflects your group members' hearts.

You as a Flower

Which flower describes you best?

Common Personalities

A fun game to help group members identify others with common personality traits.

What Are You Like?

Group members select between several pairs of objects to describe themselves.

I Will Follow You

Reflect on a responsive reading about the heroes of the faith.