CORPORATE MAKEOVER SERMON SERIES
Dealing with Difficult People
AUGUST 23, 1998
They are out there. They prowl your office space and neighborhood in a stealth-like fashion. With their game show host type grin, they take assassin-like shots at your performance and your personality. Sabotage is their specialty. They possess in their arsenal weapons that even UN forces can’t detect. Gossip. Envy. Slander. There is something about their persona that puts you on tilt, the way they look, the way they laugh, the way they treat others. I am describing labor pains brought on by difficult people. You might call them jerks or igmos or you could describe them with other colorful language we will not use in this context.
I don’t care what you do professionally. I don’t care where you work, whether you are a pastor, a mom, a cook, a carpenter or a CEO. Whether you work in the home, at a church, in a company, a practice or a firm, you are going to deal, I am going to deal, with irregular people. And, I might add, how we deal with these people will largely determine how we do in our various fields of labor. Having said that, I want to run through a few typical knee-jerk responses that many of us have when we deal with these difficult people. Our responses are quite varied. One of the popular responses we use in dealing with difficult people is to do the Tupperware thing. We take our hostilities and our anger and our resentment and instead of coming clean, instead of speaking the truth in love, we take that junk and put it in a container, put the top on the container, shelve it and allow our frosty feelings to envelope it. We think that everything is OK. We think that we have dealt with the difficult person. But after awhile a putrid odor begins to permeate the atmosphere and we wonder where it is coming from. And suddenly our entire spirit is soured. Why? Because we have done the Tupperware thing. Do we have any Tupperware people in the house?
Maybe that is not your reaction. Maybe you don’t do the Tupperware thing. Maybe you do the U-HAUL thing. Maybe that is how you deal with difficult people. When a difficult person rears his or her ugly head, instead of really coming clean and speaking the truth in love, what do you do? You just go back to your office, you pack up your things and you leave. You move. And you move from office to office, occupation to occupation, workspace to workspace thinking you can move away from irregular people. I have got news for you. They are everywhere. You can’t get away from them. Nor can I. Do we have anybody doing the U-HAUL thing? Moving from job to job, occupation to occupation, just because you have a little relational turmoil? Could that be you?
Some of us do something else, a kind of aggressive reaction. We do the monster truck think. We probably have a lot of monster truck men and women in the house. A difficult person rears his or her ugly head and instead of doing the Tupperware thing and containing it, instead of doing the U-HAUL thing and moving, you just fire up those big engines. You look at them like a little tin car and you fire up those engines and you just dominate them. You yell at them. You get on their case. You just nail them and you run right over them. And now and then during your semiannual moments of introspection, over the roar of the engine you may look in the rearview mirror and all you see in your occupational path is a bunch of relational wreckage.
Well maybe you don’t do the Tupperware thing. Maybe you are not doing the U-HAUL thing, nor the monster truck thing. Maybe just maybe you are doing the satellite thing. You’ve got a problem with someone. You are dealing with a difficult person. You have got labor pains going on and you just take all of these feelings and whoosh and you put them in orbit. And they orbit around and around your mind and your heart and your soul and your spirit. You love having them orbit your life because you can talk about them and express those negative feelings. There is something fun about ripping people apart. “Oh, see that person. Do you know what they are doing to me right now? Do you know how unfair they are? They just make me sick, their personality, the way they dress.” Popular reactions to labor pains.
The Bible says that everything you do, that I do, should enhance the credibility of Christ. In order words, everything that we touch should mirror the image of our loving and transcendent God. But I have got to add this and the Bible backs me up here, no area has the influence and the power to enhance the credibility of Christ like the relational area. I am talking specifically about the way you deal with people. By the way we treat people we can either enhance the image of Christ or we could scar it or muddy it up. I am not talking about just people you get along with. That is a no-brainer. People you have something in common with, people you connect with, your soulmates. I am talking about that difficult person. I am talking about that person who makes you cringe when they walk by your workspace. I am talking about that person whose grating laugh just gets on your nerves and makes you sick. I am talking about the jerks and the igmos. That is who I am talking about.
So today I want us to thumb through the pages of scripture and take our cues from some of God’s key characters. They dealt with labor pains in their various fields of labor. And they are going to show us how we should react and how we can deal with these pains.
Nehemiah was the general contractor of a city-wide rebuilding project. He tackled the task that people said could not be done. If you want to read a great book on teambuilding and leadership and vision casting, don’t go to Barnes and Noble, pick up the Old Testament. Ninety-nine percent of the books you will read from Barnes and Noble have just plagiarized old Nehemiah. He talked about these business principles thousands of years ago. Anyway, at the zenith of the project, at the height of his work, take a wild guess what happened. Nehemiah was focused, he was into it. Take a stab at what happened. I’ll tell you what happened. He began to have to deal with some difficult people. Some sidewalk supervisors, some naysayers, came on the scene. They began to trash talk at Nehemiah. What did Nehemiah do? What was his response? What was his knee-jerk reaction? Did he do the Tupperware thing and contain his feelings? The U-HAUL thing and leave the project? The monster truck thing and run over them? The satellite thing and put them in orbit? On no. Nehemiah prayed. Read Nehemiah, chapters one through four, and you will see Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He prayed about what they were saying. He even expressed his anger at these people to God, Himself. He stood with a supernatural strength and he remained focused on the project. Don’t miss this. He did not allow the fight to take him away from the focus. He didn’t jump down off the project and mud sling with them or trash talk with them. He took the higher ground.
A friend of mine, who I meet with regularly, is dealing with some serious labor pains. He has a jealousy-driven co-worker who is taking him to task. He has expressed his hurt and resentment to me about this person. He is God’s man doing God’s work in a God-glorifying way yet he is dealing with this person. And he is not allowing the would-be fight to take him away from his focus. And God is blessing his life in a glorious way because of it. I have seen it with my own eyes. He is staying above the fray. He is taking higher ground.
God oftentimes allows us to go through difficult situations, especially with difficult people. And if we take the higher ground, if we pray to gain perspective, if we stand strong, if we stay focused and don’t let the fight to take us away from the focus, they can be like rungs on a ladder. We can step up because of the situation to higher ground. Do you know where Nehemiah spent most of his time? While all this stuff was going on he spent most of his time up high, on top of the wall he was building around the city of Jerusalem.
Our Savior, Himself, dealt with difficult people and he did not let the fight take him away from the focus, did He? He was so focused that He dragged a large wooden cross up a hill and literally took the higher ground to pay for your sins and mine. I am talking about Jesus, the man of true focus.
The evil one will come into you life and mine and use difficult people to try to get us away from our focus, to try to get us away from God’s will, away from living a purpose driven life. But we have got to say, “I am going to pray. I am going to stand strong and I am not going to allow the would-be fight to take me away from the focus.” That is the first way we deal with difficult people.
David was a young man who literally jumped on the fast track after his upset victory over the giant Goliath. David found himself working in the administration of King Saul, schizophrenic Saul. Saul so freaked out one day in anger and envy and jealousy that he tried to rub David out. He tried to kill him. And the Bible mentions instance after instance, opportunity after opportunity, that David had to seek sweet revenge. I’m talking about opportunities to settle the score. Let me stop here and ask you a question. Quickly run through the relational Rolodex of your mind. Can you think of anybody, an ex-spouse, a neighbor, a friend, a wayward son or daughter, an ex-employee or employer that you are lying in wait for, ready to pounce on, to settle the score? Can you think about someone like that in your life? Can you? David dealt with these feelings. He dealt with the pull of revenge.
God gives us these opportunities for revenge. What did David do? Because what David did, is what we should do. I Samuel 24:12, David says to schizophrenic Saul, the guy who is trying to rub him out, “May the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me but my hand will not touch you.” David had discipline, didn’t he? He had patience. He had endurance. And every time we have the opportunity for revenge and we are patient and disciplined, God will use it to build character. It will also allow God room to handle the situation. And if you read the rest of the story about Saul, God took care of him.
That brings me to a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that you just jumped on board a brand new company and your manager saw you and utilized your skill set to such a degree that you doubled the profits of the company in a couple of months. And let’s say that the person who befriended you, hired you, interviewed you and showed you to this manager, suddenly began to do a smear campaign against you. What if the boss one day calls you in and gives you the opportunity to do a smear campaign on the person that befriended you, hired you, interviewed you? What do you do? What would your response be? Would you settle the score? Would you pounce on him or her? Or would you resist with discipline and patience and look at it as a situation that God will use to build character. Would you look at it as a situation that God could work in a more strategic and better way in your life because you didn’t take it into your own hands. What kind of response would you have? We need the focus, don’t we, of Nehemiah and the discipline of David?
Labor pains. Dealing with difficult people. We all do it. Do you remember Joseph? Joseph, as a young boy, the favorite child of his father was thrown into a pit by his brothers who hated his guts. His brothers went back and told their father that Joe had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph, though, was sold into Egyptian slavery. He went from the pit to Potifer’s house. Joseph was accused of sexual harassment, falsely accused, and he was thrown into prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. Let’s rewind for a second. Joseph thrown into the pit, sold into Egyptian slavery, now finds himself in prison. But Joseph was not singing any Johnny Cash songs. He knew that God was behind it. He knew that God was going to use him in a great way. He didn’t get into a fight to take him away from his focus. He had discipline and he had patience. He didn’t try to jump back at Potifer and his wife who had falsely accused him No, from there Joseph was miraculously promoted to the governership of Egypt. Here is a Hebrew hillbilly who is now the governor of Egypt.
Decades go by. Joseph’s brothers think that he is dead and gone. A famine takes place in their land and they make the trek all the way to Egypt and take a guess who they had to go before to get some food. That’s right, Joseph. But they didn’t recognize him because Joseph spoke in Egyptian, he dressed like an Egyptian, and they hadn’t seen him in a long, long time. And you can feel those fired up feelings kicking in in Joseph’s life. What would Joseph do? He could take them out in a minute. What did he do? I’ll tell you what he did. He went to them in private, forgave them and released them.
What I am going to say from this moment forward is reserved for those of us who want to grow deeper in our faith. It is reserved for those who are serious buyers, not tire kickers. I am talking about something that will separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the varsity from the JV. The Bible says that the glory of God is at stake in every relationship. One more time, go through the Rolodex of all your relationships. Can you safely and honestly say before God, Himself, that He is being glorified in every single relationship. Can you say that? If you can, give yourself a high five. If you can’t, listen to this Biblical advice.
Joseph, even though he was in the right and his difficult people, his brothers, were in the wrong, he went to them, released them and forgave them. And Jesus said in Matthew 5 that we are to go to a person, I don’t care if they are totally in the wrong and you are totally in the right, we are to go and to seek reconciliation and restitution and forgiveness. It is getting very quiet now.
I want to give you some quick suggestions to make this process happen in your life. I’ve brushed over these before, but I want to touch on these again. First of all, when you go to that difficult person, underscore and highlight the value of the relationship. If you are going to an employer say, “My job means a lot to me. I value it.” If you are talking to a spouse say, “My marriage means a lot to me, I love you.” Underscore and highlight the value of the relationship. And please remember feelings are not the top priority. Some of you may be saying, “You don’t understand how I feel.” That’s not the top priority. Is God glorified or not?
Secondly, make sure that you communicate in an even and balanced tone. If you go to the difficult person and you start raising your voice, they will raise their voice too and you will never get to the root of the problem. You will just have a yelling match. Proverbs 15:1 states, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Thirdly, make sure that your words are accusation and excuse free. You are going to mess up and I will too if we say, “You always. You never. Every single time…” Suddenly the person gets on the defensive. Also make it excuse free. Don’t blame the dog, the cat, the company, Kenneth Starr. Call it what it is. Speak the truth.
Fourth, answer the so-what question. “I have dealt with it, so what. I have gone to you, so what. I have sought the truth, so what.” Just say, “What do we need to do from this time forward to be sure that this does not happen again. Do we need to stick to a budget in a more stringent fashion? Do we need to write a more detailed job description?” Plan on difficult things happening with this difficult person in the future. Say that when they happen you are going to make them right. Now, sometimes, as Christ-followers, we go through all these steps and the person just disses us. They don’t accept it. The Bible says, as far as it depends on you, do the best you can. But don’t give any weak stuff to God. Try as hard as you can. If you do that and they still reject it, fine. Then the Bible says to kick the dust off your shoes and go the other way. But you have done the best you can and God will get glory from the relationship.
When are you going to release and forgive that difficult and irregular person who prowls around your office space and your neighborhood in a stealth-like fashion, with that game-show host type grin, taking assassin-like shots at your personality and performance? When.
Four weeks ago, I was attempting to teach my six-year-old son, EJ, how to ride a bike. The sun was going down and we were in our backyard. He was doing pretty well, no training wheels, you know. And as the training sessions proceeded, we moved from the back yard to the street in front of our house. EJ has a very sensitive spirit, very tender. He began to ride his bike and he was crying and asking to go indoors. “No, EJ. We are going to ride the bike. Your bleeding will stop. Everything is going to be OK. Come on.” And you know, parents, you have been there, when I said those words, I knew I had crushed his spirit. I could tell. I turned it up too high. I could really tell when Lisa raised her eyebrow. I knew it was bad.
EJ was crying and we took him back to the house. Later I was putting him to bed and I knew that I had to come clean. I walked up to him, took him in my arms and said, “EJ, I love you. And I am sorry for what I did on the street about the bike. Will you forgive me?” He smiled and said, “Yes, Daddy, I’ll forgive you.” And he hugged me. He hugged me for a long time. When I put him down I thought the whole deal was over. But he walked over to his little chest of drawers where he has a wooden container filled with sea shells sitting. They are sea shells that most of us would not even pick up. But you know a six year old. He thinks they are really great. He picked out three sea shells, these actual shells here. He walked up to me and said, “Dad, I want to give these shells to you. Do you know what the shells mean?” I said no, that I didn’t. He said, “They mean I forgive you.” Wow. Do you think I will ever give these shells away? Do you think you could buy these shells? Not on your life.
When, I ask you, are you going to do a three shell release, I forgive you? When? Ladies and gentlemen, it is my earnest prayer that we have the focus of Nehemiah, the discipline of David and the forgiveness of Joseph, because then and only then will we have the power to take care of those labor pains.