Including Difficult People


Including Difficult People

​By Lora Carter Nafziger, ADNet Field Associate, and Christine Guth, ADNet Program Director

Including, not marginalizing

Most of us know someone who makes frequent demands that must be met NOW! They may seem to live in perpetual crisis and not recognize that others have needs too. In congregations, such people may find themselves excluded and on the margins when caring people become resentful and exhausted.

If we find a brother or sister in the church demanding or difficult, we need to remember that part of the difficulty always lies with us. When we notice our frustration, anger, and resentment growing, it is a signal to listen to the Spirit urging us to pay special attention to the relationship. How do we respond with the love of Christ to include and not let resentment have the upper hand?

Cultivating compassionate respect

A response that embodies the compassion of Christ may come easier if we cultivate empathy. People who demand a disproportionate share of a congregation’s resources are often dealing with multiple pressing issues at once, for example, disability (including mental illness), relationship stress, financial crisis, addiction, discrimination, trauma, etc. The need to ask for help is an added stress factor.

Our compassionate respect for troubling people who struggle with any form of disability can grow if we consider that they are doing the best that they can with whatever is available to them. It may also help to understand that manipulation may be the only way they know to get legitimate needs met. Expressing our appreciation for how well they are coping with immense challenges may be a way to put relationships on a good footing. This is especially helpful when we face the need to set firm boundaries.

Boundary setting

Healthy boundaries allow us to be effective and maintain relationships across time. Setting boundaries requires us to be aware of where our responsibilities end and those of others begin. We need a strong sense of self in order to differentiate between requests that are appropriate and those that are not.

In each situation we need to evaluate the relative importance of three areas:

  • our relationship with the other person
  • our objectives (getting what we want)
  • our self-dignity or self-respect.

 When someone is demanding of us, we need to determine which of these three areas is most important in the moment and respond accordingly. We will likely have difficulty setting healthy boundaries if we find ourselves always focusing on the same area.

Suppose we always give in to demands from a certain person in our congregation in order to maintain the relationship. This sacrifices our own or congregational objectives and our self-respect. We are teaching the person, inadvertently, that they are entitled to ask for whatever they want and receive it. This pattern will make it difficult to say no, even when a request clearly interferes with our self-respect or the best interests of others and the congregation. 

Alternatively, if we always make a priority of getting our own or congregational needs met, then the person making the request will feel run over or ignored. When this happens often, the person will not experience the blessing that comes from inclusion in the body of Christ. Maintaining balance between the three approaches allows us flexibility in compassionately responding to people. We can more readily set boundaries needed for the wellbeing of all.

Responding thoughtfully

Responding too quickly to those who place demands on us often grows out of anxiety. When we feel on the spot, cornered, or out of our league, anxiety may push us to respond right away. Complying immediately with the request may relieve tension for the moment but lead to later regret.

Suggestions to decrease anxiety:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Centering prayer
  • Feel your feet close to the earth
  • Try to evaluate all the conditions of the request
  • Ask for time to come to an answer
  • Step out of the room and re-enter.

Responding thoughtfully in the face of “NOW” demands requires us to know our own needs, desires, and limits. We need an intact sense of self-respect. We must also commit ourselves to remaining in relationship with the ones making demands on us. The reward for such hard, inclusive work is a chance to benefit from God’s amazing gifts hidden in people we might have written off with the label “difficult.”

Learn More

Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. Marsha Linehan, Guilford Press, 1993.

 Read more

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