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Learn to deal with all types of difficult people, speaker says

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–What do the phrases Sherman tank, ticking bomb, handwringer, wonderful, entitled, perfect and bull-headed have in common?

They are all unique descriptions for difficult people — Christians who can be found in just about any Southern Baptist church in the world, said Bob Sheffield, a conflict management/mediation specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Sheffield led a two-part workshop on proper Christian responses to difficult people during the National Conference for Church Leadership, June 24-28 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.

“Difficult people can be pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons, staff members, church members and pastors’ wives,” Sheffield said. “The church is not an institution or organization; it is the people. If we can do everything else right within the church and not have good relationships, then something is dreadfully wrong.”

Because ministers are “in the people business,” they should know how to get along with difficult people, Sheffield said. And to do that, they must understand a little about their own personal history.

“We don’t come to our relationships in a vacuum,” he said. “How we relate to people has to do with our own history of relating.”

Issues to look at include:

— family of origin

— personal relationship history

— age group influences

— genetic emotional makeup

— current peer/support/work group

— sense of call, type (or personality) of church they grew up in

— spiritual health

“Most of the problems of difficult people come out of their emotional or spiritual immaturity,” Sheffield said. “But all of these things impact how we experience a person in the moment and how we deal with conflict.”

Almost everybody has one or two difficult people in their lives, he said, and that is especially true of church leaders.

“We can’t change our difficult person. You just have to learn to relate to him or her,” Sheffield said. “With God’s help we can relate to anybody, but that doesn’t mean we are going to like everybody equally well.”

Some general characteristics of difficult people include:

— They are provocative or quarrelsome.

— They seek to gain an advantage in situations.

— They have a low self-image, even though they may look like egotists.

— They have a tendency to be devious, deceptive and/or manipulative.

— They are unpredictable, even to themselves.

— They are unimaginative.

— They could have low-grade depression.

— They are gifted in creating dissension.

Sheffield places difficult people in unique descriptor categories, like:

— The bull-headed. “The number one reason pastors in the SBC are forcibly terminated is over the issue of who is going to control the church,” Sheffield said. “Some people are just thick-headed. You cannot disturb them with the facts.”

— The bushwhacker. “These are the passive aggressive people, and you need to figure out who they are. They come at you from the back. They are the ones who start the gossip.”

— The Sherman tank. “These are usually people with a lot of power, and they didn’t get it overnight. So, you have to figure out how to work with them without butting heads.”

— The ticking bomb. “They have latent hostility. They are going to go off. If somebody reacts in this over-the-top way, you might stop to ask yourself, ‘I wonder what’s going on in his or her life.'”

— The lone ranger. “They like to do everything themselves. And they can be difficult, particularly if you need a team effort. It’s particularly tough if your pastor is lone ranger.”

— The warlord. “This is a person who is behind everything. They are running the show, but you seldom see them. They are decision-makers and opinion shapers.”

— The wonderful. “This is an individual who most people think is just fine and dandy, but you can’t stand because of some ways they rub you. And you can’t understand why others don’t see that this person is not really all that wonderful.”

— The critic. “The critic is always looking for things they can criticize. It’s not hard to spot the critic because they are going to point out your mistakes. But don’t dismiss them. You can learn from them. Also, don’t buy into the fact you are as bad as they make you out to be.”

— The superior. “What’s so maddening about them is they are in some ways superior. It’s just that they keep rubbing it in. You don’t want to get in a competitive mode with superior.”

— The perfect. “He never makes a mistake. They are just perfect, and you’re not. They are perfect because they stand on shoulders of the imperfect around them. They have to bring people down around them.”

— The entitled. “They feel like they have a right to do whatever they feel like.”

— The different. They are difficult because they are different in some way: attitude, ethnicity, age group.”

— The pioneer. “They were there first. And you can’t do anything about it because they were there first.”

— The thunderstorm. “They have a lot of lightening and a lot of thunder, but not much rain. They are loud and gruff. Don’t try to out shout them. Lower your voice when they raise theirs.”

— The lukewarm. “They drive me absolutely nuts. They are neither for or against apathy.”

— The handwringer. These are the Chicken Littles of the world. Very positive folks find them very difficult to handle.”

Sheffield listed four ways to confront and, hopefully, diffuse difficult people.

— Develop gentleness rather than impulsiveness. “Let the Holy Spirit develop the gentle spirit within you.”

— Let the mind of Christ guide you in all of our relationships. “Jesus took on the form of a servant, a bond slave. Take the same attitude as Christ Jesus.”

— Commit yourself to personal intervention. “Try to talk to the person about the issue in private.”

— “Pray, pray, pray. You need for God to guide you even as you begin to think about what you are going to do.”

The National Conference for Church Leadership Church is sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Church leaders interested in attending an NCCL conference next year can e-mail [email protected] for more information.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DIFFICULT DYNAMICS.

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  • Terri Lackey