If you’re like me, you can think of at least half a dozen people you’ve known during your lifetime that you simply can’t stand to be around. Decades have passed since I was a persecuted fifth-grader, but my stomach still knots up when I think of the face or the name of my bully. Yet like it or not, I had to keep attending that school.
Several years later, as a college kid, I worked eight-hour night shifts at a state institution, occasionally being forced to sit in a small office with a brutally sarcastic coworker. This man will always be at the top of my “most disliked persons” list. Yet I had to do my best to get along with him for those eight hours.
Neither of these individuals is in my life anymore, but there’s still no shortage of people who are just not fun to be around—yet I have no choice but to coexist with them. And I have to deal with them.
I wish I could tell you the church is different, that everyone likes and loves everyone else and no one ever has any conflicts. After all, shouldn’t it be that way? Didn’t the apostle Paul say that God wants His people to be united (Ephesians 4:13)? Of course! But he also recognized that he himself wasn’t perfect (Philippians 3:12), nor was anyone else, for “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). We’re all reaching toward God’s ideal.
So, how do you and I get along with someone we don’t like, whether it’s in the church or on the outside?
Begin with a self-check
Since you’ve read this far, you’re probably a fairly likeable person. You appreciate people, and you dislike conflict. However, it might be a good idea to consider your own personality for a moment. Ask yourself, How many of my conversations do I dominate? In group decision making, is it “my way or the highway”? Does anyone consider me “prickly”? Do people walk on eggshells around me? Do I intimidate others?
There’s another aspect to examining ourselves. Why do we dislike some people? Surprisingly—or maybe not so surprisingly—dislike grows mostly from fear. My loathing for my boyhood bully started with his threats about the thrashing he promised me behind the schoolhouse after the final bell rang. As we grow up, fear of physical hurt is replaced by fears of people who bully us in more subtle psychological ways. And the problem with this fear is that it prevents us from setting proper boundaries. This, too, can be a cause of our dislike for some people.
The better we understand ourselves, the more easily we’ll be able to deal appropriately with the people we don’t like. So ask God to help you understand your part of the problem and how you can correct it. Learn to pray with David: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23, 24, NKJV).* Ask the Holy Spirit to change your heart, which will result in your improved behavior.
Seek to understand them
It’s also helpful for us to try to understand the other person. Maybe he or she descended from a long line of grudge-holders. Maybe in their family it was normal for one family member to not speak to another for weeks or even years. And, of course, those who’ve grown up surrounded by angry shouters find that a towering tantrum sometimes helps them get what they want. Bullies are often very insecure inside, and their bullying is simply their way of feeling in control. They may not know any better—and they may not change unless they’ve driven enough people away from them that they feel lonely.
The other person’s culture may also simply be different from yours and therefore baffling or frustrating to you. People from some cultures value gentleness and indirect discussion, while others feel most comfortable with hand-waving expostulation. With your background, you may feel that it’s intrusive to stare at someone’s face, and if I come from an “if you’re honest you should look me in the eye” culture, I might consider you shifty or suspicious. The boisterous give-and-take of an animated discussion, where both speakers challenge each other good-naturedly and even loudly, might cause someone from a quieter culture to shrink fearfully into his or her shell.
So when you have no choice but to spend time with people you dislike, try to put yourself in their shoes. Try to understand them.
Now let’s examine some time-tested strategies for getting along with someone you don’t like.
This doesn’t mean putting up with abuse, which we’ll talk about below. It does mean to remember Jesus’ advice to His soon-to-be-persecuted disciples: Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38– 42), and forgive abundantly (Matthew 18:21, 22).
Jesus, of course, is our ultimate “Forgiver” Mentor. “Forgive us our debts,” He taught us to pray, “as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). No stranger to persecution, He watched as many who had once adored Him finally cried out for His crucifixion. Yet even as Roman soldiers drove nails into His hands, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
- Study what the Bible says about dealing with people.
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Christians should treat each other “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering; bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). “Behold, how good and pleasant it is,” says Psalm 133:1, “for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Important: this does not mean you have to be a doormat, as I’ll mention further down.
- Learn from your diplomatic friends.
Steve (I’ve changed his name) is a friend of mine, and years ago I started trying to imitate his wonderful diplomatic skills. He has developed many sincere and gracious phrases to use for disagreeing with people when that becomes necessary. What I truly appreciate about Steve is that he’s so quick on his feet with those magic phrases, which often defuses conflict before it starts.
Rather than a cold “I disagree with you,” Steve might say something like, “You know, that’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure that I’m quite on track with it, but tell me more.” Rather than, “You knucklehead! World War II ended in 1945, not 1944!” Steve might say mildly, “Did you have a chance to look that date up in Wikipedia? I always had the idea it was 1945.” Rather than, “I demand that the church carpet color be forest glade green!” Steve might say, “You know, I’ve been doing some study into colors that might match our current sanctuary décor. I’ve come up with a few possibilities, and I’d like to see what you decorating committee members think about them.”
- Make a list of the difficult person’s positive qualities and look for ways to genuinely express your appreciation for them.
If that person loves football, learn to talk football with him. If he or she is cranky but also a faithful pastor, deacon, or Bible student, you’ll warm that person’s heart by your nongushy compliments.
- If someone treats you with irritation or anger, set your boundaries kindly but firmly.
If you don’t, you’ll become a doormat the other person can walk all over anytime he or she wants to. (Some antagonists actually get an adrenaline rush when they get angry, and they subconsciously seek this stimulus.)
Sometimes setting your boundaries means doing a bit of confronting. Back in that little night-shift office with my brutally sarcastic coworker, I came to the point where I’d had enough. Evidently, this man thought that because I came from a home where my dad modeled gentleness, he could harass me and get away with it.
But finally, without raising my voice, I told him what I didn’t like about his behavior. I didn’t stomp out of the room. I didn’t threaten to stop talking to him. I just behaved in a way that signaled that I considered him a reasonable person, and (after carefully preparing what I was going to say so that I wouldn’t go off-script) I told him matter-of-factly what was on my mind. He was jolted. It was as though a little lamb (me) had suddenly become a German shepherd with an authoritative growl. He didn’t suddenly start to like me, but life in that little night office got quite a bit better.
- Remember, you’re not this person’s Messiah.
Once in a great while, some one may come into your life who is so dysfunctional that no one without professional training can possibly help him or her.
The problem is that when we first become acquainted with these highly dysfunctional people, we tend to assume that they are pretty much like us. After all, we all have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, and so on. And if we see someone who’s emotionally needy, it’s tempting to take that person on as a Christian project.
Normally, this would be OK. However— and I speak from personal experience here—there are a few people so intensely toxic that they can be helped only by a direct miracle of God and perhaps lots of counseling. A few years ago, I had to deal with a person like that, and no matter how far over backward I and several of my friends bent, this person continued to do grave emotional damage to us. So finally we set firm boundaries.
- Remember, Jesus loves this person too.
And because of His love, He died for that person just as much as for you and me. So always bathe your antagonist in lots of prayer. You might be surprised— as I’ve been—at the wonders prayer can work.
I hope you don’t know any of the disagreeable people I’ve described. But if you do, whether they are neighbors, coworkers, or fellow church members, I hope these suggestions will help you to get along with them better.