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6 Approaches to Handle the Bullies in Your Life

February 7, 2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s 2017. One again, it’s that time of year to attempt a New Years resolution. No matter whether you decide to begin a new exercise routine, stick to a budget, or read the Bible from front to back, commitment to growth should be the prevailing virtue.

One resolution that might be on somebody’s list is to deal with a difficult person in their lives. This is really challenging for most people because we generally like getting along with others. Having a potentially difficult conversation tends to be especially difficult for outgoing personalities, but having the ability to confront and manage conflict is an important trait of competent leaders.

Although daunting, dealing with difficult people is not as complex as you think. A few years ago, I took a snapshot of a poster in my sister-in-law’s classroom. She gave her students in grades 3-5 a few pointers for dealing with people who were bothering them. These rules might have been written for kids, yet you might be surprised to know that adults can use them.

So, here are six approaches that you can use to address difficult people in your life.

1. Ignore Them- Ignore the behavior, especially if it is minor.

I learned a valuable lesson in recent years: some people, for whatever reason, will simply not like you and the sooner you learn how to accept this reality, the happier you will be. The reasons why people don’t get along can be many. Still, preoccupying yourself with having a perfect score in the “likability” category is actually a sign of insecurity. It reveals that we care more about what others think than our goals or values.

This isn’t to say that you act unilaterally and ignore those around you. What I am saying is that you have to learn when to let things go.

A few years ago, when I wrote a blog entitled “Why the next GC President should be in their 30s“, I heard through the grapevine that someone I know said that I wrote that blog because I was prideful and was gunning for a job either in the Conference or higher.

Having my motives called into question really bothered me, but I had to ask myself, “Are you going to answer every critic and naysayer that comes your way?” Remember, even Jesus had people who didn’t like him. Some comments you have to let go and leave in the peanut gallery.

Focus more on character rather than reputation. If you prioritize the former, the latter will take care of itself.

2. Distance Yourself- Move away from the student who is bugging you.

Justin Yang, a friend of mine shared the following tweet a few weeks ago:

I followed up with the following thought: There are entire churches filled with fight-or-flight Adventists who chase others away or church-hop. Lacking? Conflict resolution skills.

Distancing yourself, in some extreme cases, may require a change in membership. I don’t think that’s what this point has in mind. If, for example, somebody is saying something that you really take issue with, walk away. In the online setting, “distancing yourself” is a easy as “mute,” “block,” and “unfollow.”

If you’re in a church where there are known antagonists, you don’t have to wait for problems to come to you, you can gracefully make your exit stage left. This should not be a go-to strategy every time, though, since you’re basically just kicking the can down the road. What this strategy does is allow you to control the time and setting for a conversation that must be had.

That brings us to step 3…

3. Talk Friendly- Ask the student that is bugging you to please stop doing whatever it is that they are doing.

At this point, you will need courage. Even though you may want to fight the bully or flee from the bully, I’m asking you to stand your ground and in the most calm, friendly manner you can, share what you’d like to see. If someone is saying or doing something offensive, smile and assert your wishes in a polite way.

Smiling is especially important here and, yes, it may even have to be forced like this…

But, here’s the really cool thing: smiling releases endorphins in your brain. These chemicals make you feel relaxed, happier, and less stressed. According to one source:

Faking a smile or laugh works as well as the real thing—the brain doesn’t differentiate between real or fake as it interprets the positioning of the facial muscles in the same way. This is known as the facial feedback hypothesis.

Just like step 2, though, don’t abuse this step and fake smile your way through life. People can usually spot when someone is being disingenuous, even though they may not cognitively perceive it. What this step helps you with is to have you engage an uncomfortable situation head-on.

Now, let’s say that this approach doesn’t work. In that case, use step 4.

4. Talk Firmly- Ask the student that is bothering you to stop in a firm way, but not yelling, and tell the person that if they don’t stop they will tell the teacher.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that these rules were first written to kids in 3rd to 5th grade. More than simply being a guidebook for handling schoolmates that they find annoying, it’s training for life.

To the offended student, having a firmer response to a disruptive student enables independence for the former. In some cases, the first thing that children, like adults, do is to find someone else to fix their problems. A student may ask the teacher to take care of the problem before attempting to handle a challenging person themselves. Likewise, church members may look to the pastor to address cantankerous elements in the church.

It’s not the teacher’s or pastor’s job to serve as the interpersonal police for classrooms/churches.

This is step also falls in line with Scriptures paradigm for dealing with escalating conflict in Matthew 18:15-18. Being more firm also sends a message to the offender that they can and will be held responsible for their words, or be elected president.

So when someone says something that you find rude, offensive, or otherwise distasteful, don’t wait for someone else to solve your problems. Speak up.

5. Use Problem Solving- Ask the student to a special place in the room to talk and use an “I” message.

The “special place” is not the parking lot, and the “I” message is not “I’m going to punch you in the face.” Here, you look beyond the behavior that’s occurring and into the underlying world of emotions. Here is where all of the real action takes place.

If you think about it, those that we consider annoying, rude, bullies, or otherwise distasteful, not only affect our minds, they affect our hearts.

When my sister-in-law suggested this to her kids, she hoped that by using these problem solving skills, kids would be able to connect to each other at a personal level. Why? Because it’s on the personal and emotional level that intimacy, understanding and reconciliation take place.

What is this method she used? Here it is along with some examples that she expected her kids to use with one another. Of course, she went over these rules with the students at the beginning of the year, modeled the expected behavior, and was there to help if any questions arose.

i-Message Problem Solving

“When you_____ it made me feel _____.”
“I know when____ it made you feel ____. What do you want me to do to make it right?”

“Explain to me why you did that.”
“I _____ because _____.”

“What would have been a better choice?”
“A better choice would have been to _____.”

“What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

“I can _____. Will you please forgive me for _____?”

“I forgive you.”

If you are a new pastor at a church where you believe there might be some fighting among the members, establishing these rules for conflict resolution would be a great step. Even if you’re starting your sixth year in a church district like I am, wouldn’t it be great to do a sermon series on reconciliation and give practical pointers to help your members in their day-to-day lives?

6. Get Adult Help- If a student does not cooperate during the “I” message or does not stop, then get the teacher to help.

If all other forms of civil problem solving failed, then my sister-in-law encouraged her students to get outside help. If you’re a millennial like me, you may find it hard to believe that you’re an adult now and children look to you for help and guidance. I look into my eight-month-old son’s eyes and realizing that I’m the parent terrifies me from time to time.

For adults, who is your “adultier adult”? Who is someone with the gift of insight, discernment, and distend to get involved in the problem? You don’t want someone who will basically just agree to everything you say or who may make the problem worse.

In the Carolina Conference, we have a group of certified “Peacemakers” through Ken Sandy’s organization. According to the website, “the Certification Program employs elements of education, experience, and accountability to equip conciliators with advanced peacemaking skills so that they are prepared to address challenging conciliation issues in their churches, ministries, or professions in a competent and biblically faithful manner.”

You may be tempted to think at this point, “these ideas won’t work on adults.” If this is you, guess what? You’re wrong.

Our personalities stay pretty much the same throughout our lives, from our early childhood years to after we’re over the hill, according to a new study [published originally in 2010].

The results show personality traits observed in children as young as first graders are a strong predictor of adult behavior.

“We remain recognizably the same person,” said study author Christopher Nave, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside. “This speaks to the importance of understanding personality because it does follow us wherever we go across time and contexts.”

These approaches may be simple, but give them a shot. You may be surprised to find that they work! Best of luck.

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