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3 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Personalities

Whether it’s a family member, a co-worker, a fellow church member, or fill-in-the-blanks, we know that difficult personalities will find you. The funny thing is, you might be a difficult personality to someone else and not even know it! That’s the beauty of differences.

But sometimes, difficult personalities are more than just differences that equate to pet peeves or minor annoyances. Sometimes, difficult personalities thrive on conflict. They gain traction by “stirring the pot,” being particularly difficult, stubborn, argumentative, and conceited. On the other hand, they may be none of those traits, but all of the traits of someone who is clingy, needy, saps the energy from you, and manipulates you with guilt to get what they want or need.

Tolerating difficult personalities isn’t for the faint of heart. On whatever side of the spectrum they fall, these types of people can create anxiety in us, inspire shame and guilt, and make the atmosphere combative and unwelcoming. So how do we tolerate difficult personalities? Does God expect us to just take it in stride? Is it ever okay to walk away from a challenging personality, or must we view all of them as opportunities for ministry and love them as Jesus would?

The answer, as usual, is never black and white. Nor should it be. When it comes to human relationships, they require complicated elements and, therefore, are not easily maneuvered. Still, there are some things you can do to journey through the process of toleration while not creating a situation where you’re experiencing abuse or are finding your relationship to be completely miserable.

Here are a few suggestions to chew on—keeping in mind each situation is unique, and these may not all apply properly:

1. Create Boundaries

This is easier said than done. At first thought, it makes perfect common sense. Draw a line, don’t allow the other person to cross it. But keep in mind, they’re difficult personalities for a reason: because they’ve already pushed the unspoken and instinctual boundaries that had already been set up.

This means that setting boundaries will probably take more work. Either you’ll need to verbally communicate with them and have the individual repeat them back to you so you know they heard and understood, or you will have to firmly communicate your “no” when they begin to cross a boundary you may not have defined for them. Whichever path you choose, neither will be easy, and often they won’t be well-received. When you decide to set and enforce boundaries, be sure you are ready to stand firm in them before you begin. Once you compromise or acquiesce, a difficult personality will more than likely assume the boundaries no longer exist from that point forward. Setting new ones, after you’ve already broken previously established ones will seem paltry and weak.

Boundaries will often be challenged with guilt, shame, blame, and even fury. It’s always good to run your boundaries past a reliable counsel before establishing them with the individual with whom the problem lies. Make sure your boundaries are reasonable, specific, measurable, and sustainable.

2. Communicate in Black and White

Difficult personalities typically do not respond well or interact well with communication that isn’t specific. This is because often, they are looking for loopholes and ways to manipulate words to suit their purposes. Whether it’s through aggression or guilt, these types of individuals may not even realize what they’re doing when they twist your words and use them against you.

So, learn to be concise and specific. Use your words carefully. Be cautious of using words that may not mean exactly what you intend them to mean. For example, “should” and “have to” have very different end meanings. “You should give me some space” implies a suggested action versus “you have to give me some space,” which states clearly that it must happen without question.

Avoid speaking in riddles and allegories, in illustrations and a thousand similes. A challenging person needs to know where they stand. So, speak truth. “You hurt me when you . . .” or “You need to give me some time without you . . .” Will they react with a negative reaction? More than likely. So be prepared that your honesty and concise communication may likely be perceived or blamed as tactless, blunt, or rude, and they may even call you arrogant and authoritative yourself. Therefore, before you speak, be sure you think it through carefully and be prepared to shield yourself from the darts of irritation, anger, hurt, or shame.

3. It’s Okay to Walk Away

Walking away from a difficult personality doesn’t necessarily mean you’re washing your hands of them. Sometimes, in any relationship, it is essential for space. This is seen as a positive in a good relationship and is usually encouraged. In a difficult relationship, it can be interpreted as abandonment, a lack of willingness to face the problem, running away, or stubbornness.

Assuming you’ve set clear and enforceable boundaries and that you have equipped yourself to communicate clearly, then when you walk away to engage in some distance, do so with a mindset that is willing to learn what lessons the Holy Spirit may wish to teach you. But also do so with a mind free of guilt. Space can be very valuable and very necessary.

When you walk away, be cautious you do so in purity and with a clean heart. This means—and granted, yes, we’re human—that you don’t walk away in anger and vicious words, exasperation, or flinging your hands in the air. End of patience doesn’t equal anger, and exhaustion doesn’t equal exasperation. You can be running low on patience and energy to deal with a person, but when you include anger and exasperation, now you’ve made the fight personal. It won’t be well-received, and your space will not be respected—by them or by you.

We will always have difficult people to contend with. It’s just par for the course in being human. Unfortunately, many of us take one of two extremes: we tolerate to the point of allowing ourselves and our time to be abused, or we cancel the individual out of a lack of tolerance and grace. Neither is typically the best response—again, I’m not addressing an abusive relationship—and both should err towards the middle versus their extreme ends.

As the Proverbs state, “a soft answer turns away wrath.” This may be your best course of action with an aggressive and angry individual. Soft and non-combative. With a clingy individual, soft answers may become your worst enemy, as they’ll see you as pliable and manipulatable. In this case, your words may need to be firm and bold—not harsh—but definitive. With all difficult personalities, to tolerate is to show patience—and yet even with toleration, there are boundaries, and there are caveats. Be cautious you don’t mix the idea of tolerating with allowing for bad and hurtful behavior towards you or others. Grace can be given, but even God has set forth firm lines and boundaries that are simply not to be crossed. These are meant for our benefit, our safety, and the betterment of our relationship with Him. It’s not much different for human relationships as well.

Related articles:

4 Biblical Ways to Deal with Difficult People

How to Protect Yourself From These 10 Toxic People

10 Ways to Let Go of a Toxic Relationship

3 Ways Healthy Boundaries are Christlike

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Wavebreakmedia

Jaime Jo Wright is an ECPA and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author. Her novel “The House on Foster Hill” won the prestigious Christy Award and she continues to publish Gothic thrillers for the inspirational market. Jaime Jo resides in the woods of Wisconsin, lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at and at her podcast where she discusses the deeper issues of story and faith with fellow authors.

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