September 4, 2012 // Uncategorized

Dealing with difficult people

We all have them in our lives — those people we don’t like. People who rub us the wrong way, who push our buttons, and sometimes more seriously, people who truly are dangerous to our mental or physical health. What should we do?

Jesus tells His followers to forgive 70 times seven (Mt 18:21-23). But how?

St. Therese wanted to obey Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies. She shared that, in Carmel, there are no enemies, but there were some annoying people. Think of that — people can even annoy saints! There were some nuns whom St. Therese did not like, but Therese set about going out of her way to treat them lovingly just as Christ would. This should be our response to the difficult people in our lives — simply to treat those people with love, regardless of our feelings.

“But the Our Father prays ‘lead us not into temptation’ and this person is a huge temptation for me!” you may say. And indeed that very well may be true. God doesn’t ask us to seek out difficult people, just treat them with kindness and patience when we do come in contact with them.

Do you have difficulty forgiving an offense? You’ve heard the old adage “Hurt (adjective) people hurt (verb) people”? Well, there is much truth to that. Before this difficult person hurt you, he was likely hurt by someone else. This does not excuse his sin, of course, but if you view the person as God created him, an innocent soul before he was swayed by sin, it is easier to forgive.

Once we have forgiven should we forget? Yes and no. Yes, we should not dwell upon the offenses against us. We should pray for and wish the best for even those who do evil to us. However, we should not feel compelled to put ourselves in a situation where we “forget” the offense occurred and thus can be seriously hurt again. If someone has mentally or physically abused or hurt our children, our spouse or us, for example, it is not only okay to avoid that person but it is imperative that we do so. What about forgiving when the perpetrator is not penitent? Kindness should be offered, but again, no risks taken.

When thinking about dealing with difficult people, it helps to categorize them into two groups — those who are harmless and those who are dangerous. Dangerous people should clearly be avoided, but what about harmless ones? They can be some of the most annoying.

Handling harmless, annoying people is not hard. When contact is unavoidable, approach them rather than wait to be approached. Ask their opinion before they offer it. Validate them with a sincere compliment. Be firm in your boundaries and don’t feel badly about leaving when you need to do so. Don’t dwell on what annoys you about them. Brush off the annoyance by chalking it up to the differences in personalities that God has created and leave judgment of them to Him. Decide not to do to others what’s been done to you.

What if the difficult person is family, a harshly critical in-law or sibling?

Similar strategies can be applied: Listen, smile, be kind and excuse.

Listen. Listen to what the person is saying, not just the words but also his tone and the body language. Is he frustrated? Does he simply want validation of his own skills or value? Sometimes just listening softens people. It also helps you develop patience.

Smile. Smile, because smiles generally disarm unkindness and anger. Smiles demonstrate confidence. They show empathy. Smiling also helps you develop a joyful spirit.

Be kind. Be kind because you are a Catholic Christian and the difficult person is also one of God’s Divine creations. Jesus also died for the salvation of this difficult person and out of respect for that, you must be kind. Being kind helps you develop feeling kind.

Excuse. Excuse the behavior by thinking of the most empathetic reason she could have said or done what she said or did. She might have a headache. She might have just learned her husband lost his job. Give difficult people the same kind of justification you would like for yourself when you have said or done something annoying or unkind.

After listening, smiling, being kind and mentally excusing the behavior of a difficult person, sometimes you might have to just turn away. God does not ask us to be human punching bags or “take” unkind behavior.

“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” — Lk 6:27-28.

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