Practices with Difficult People

Difficult people. We all know who they are: the nagging relative who always wants something more from us, the noisy neighbor who won't leave us alone, the colleague at work who is filled with toxic resentment, the friend who has nothing good to say about anything.

Difficult people drain our energy, put us on edge, and arouse in us uncomfortable feelings of frustration, impatience, anger, or even a desire for revenge.

Our society tells us that the best way to deal with annoying people is to ignore them — or vote them out of the game. When we were children, we were told that when we meet such people, we should just walk away.

The spiritual traditions show us another possibility. Most of them encourage us to form communities where our common commitments override our differences. Although we may have deep disagreements with people in our church, synagogue or sangha, or just find that some folks really irritate us, we still join with them for worship and service. A spiritual group that is made up of a variety of personality types is a good training ground for practicing our tolerance skills.

Jesus, for example, is a very good model of how to respond to difficult people. He doesn't ignore them. He doesn't walk away from them. He allows himself to be touched by their neediness; he patiently listens to their questions and complaints. And he shows compassion for them because he recognizes the suffering, fear, confusion, and pain that is behind their annoying behavior. So we, too, need to accept the presence of difficult people in our lives and have compassion for them. That is the first way to make dealing with difficult people into a spiritual practice.

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In his insightful book on this subject, Thank You for Being Such a Pain, Mark I. Rosen observes: "The most powerful option for dealing with a difficult person is personal growth. Inner change inevitably leads to outer change." He suggests that you say a little prayer when you find yourself face-to-face with a difficult person: "Here comes another one. God, I ask you to guide me. You have sent this person to me for a reason. Help me to know what it is, and help me to cope successfully." 

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat 

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