How To Deal Effectively with Conflict and Difficult People

Toilt paper conflict difficult peopleDr. Barrett Mosbacker, PublisherDealing with difficult people can be very uncomfortable!  Despite 20 years of experience, my stress level still rises whenever my administrative assistance informs me that: 

Mr. and Mrs. Jones want to see you.  They are upset about .....

One would think that by now I would have learned to be more sanguine but alas, I still feel my gut tighten in anticipation of an unpleasant conversation.

Although I have not yet learned how to reach a “state of nirvana,” I have learned a few things over the years that may be helpful to you.  I offer the following tips with the prayer that you will find them helpful the next time you face that angry email, phone call, or the unscheduled “do you have a minute?”

Conflict Cannot and Should Not Be Avoided

If two godly men like Paul and Barnabas, who ministered and faced persecution together, could not avoid conflict (Acts 15:39-40) then there should be no illusions about our ability to avoid it. Conflict is inevitable.  It is also an integral part of our ministry to students, parents, and staff.

I often tease parents during our Parent Orientation sessions.  When asking for their prayers I quip:

My job is relatively easy--"I only deal with people's children, money, and religion!

Parents laugh at this statement because they quickly realize just how difficult leading a school can be. Most of them would not want the job for any amount of pay!  Upon reflection, they become a bit more empathetic when assessing the school's response to a given situation.

A Little Humor

As illustrated by my quip, humor is a natural and effective way to reduce tension, demonstrate humility, and foster empathy--provided it is used appropriately and in the right context.  Misused or inappropriate humor can do more harm than good. Well timed and thoughtful humor, on the other hand, can relax a tense situation and put it into perspective.  Consider the following non-school examples (source: How to Use Humor to Diffuse Conflict, by Carla Rieger).

Time Deadline

Our manager was pushing the IT technician to fix a huge computer breakdown in under half a day. The technician was getting frustrated at the unreasonable request, but rather than push back with resistance, he said, "Actually, I only need two hours. The other two I'll be using to cure world hunger." They both laughed and the manager mellowed out.

Smaller Budget

A client kept returning our budget proposal saying it needed to be smaller. No matter how much trimming we did, the client kept pushing for "Smaller, smaller!" I finally took the proposal to a copier and had it reduced to two inches in size. I sent it to the client and said, "This is about as small as I can make it. Tell me what you think." He called me saying it got a huge laugh in his office and that he would now accept the proposal as soon as he could find his magnifying glass.

Again, be careful.  Humor can be very effective but it can backfire if it is poorly timed or inappropriate.

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is! (Pro 15:23)

To Disciple and to be Discipled

When I know that I am about to be confronted with an angry or upset parent, or when confronted unexpectedly, I remind myself that every conflict "is an opportunity to disciple or to be discipled."  The objective is not to avoid conflict, it is not to deny that there is a problem, and it is not merely to "tolerate" the other person or the meeting.  Instead, conflict is a providentially appointed opportunity to disciple and minister to others or to be discipled by others (Rom. 8:28). 

When dealing with someone who is upset, don't ask yourself "how can I avoid this situation or how can I get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible."  Instead, ask yourself this,

How can the Lord use me in this situation to minister to Mr. and Mrs. Jones and how can the Lord use upset Mr. and Mrs. Jones to instruct me or to make the school better?

You will be surprised how much easier it is to deal with difficult situations and people when you adopt this biblical attitude.  I remind myself of the following verses when facing a difficult situation:

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14)

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Pro 27:5-6)

The upset parent or staff member can be our instructors!  Only pride would keep us from freely acknowledging our need for correction--even if not given in an appropriate manner.


Relax!  You and I have clay feet.  We make image mistakes.  We sin.  Unlike our teenage children, we don't know everything. 

We don't have to pretend otherwise to be effective leaders. In fact, acknowledging our frailties reflects genuine humility, fosters listening, reduces defensiveness, and in general reduces tension.  It also puts us in a state of mind to learn from the situation while fostering respect for those who are upset. 

Admit mistakes.  Do not be defensive.  Own the poor decisions.  Doing so models Christian character, is instructive to those who are upset, and leads to the development of stronger schools.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Pro 16:18)


Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (James 1:19)

This verse reminds me of Steven Covey's statement that one of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is that they seek first to understand and then to be understood.  In our pride or defensiveness we often seek to justify more than we seek to understand. We want to defend more than we want to learn.  This attitude is both wrong and counter-productive.

Even if the other person is out of line or just plain wrong, we can often learn something of value from the confrontation.  This requires that we talk less and listen more



(Source: Cartoonstock)

Sometimes people just need to vent.  Have you ever been in a meeting where the other party keeps repeating the same grievance over and over?  You got it the first time or certainly by the second rendition but they keep going? 

Take a deep breath (quietly!), be patient, and give them ample time.  Doing so shows respect, gives them time to vent, and may reveal something important to learn.

Speak the Truth--In Love

Humility does not mean that we ignore sin or false accusations.  It is sinful to ignore the truth in order to avoid conflict.  Sometimes we need to confront the parent or the employee with their sinful behavior.  For example, the dad who is acting inappropriately during an athletic event, the teacher who responded disrespectfully to a student, or the parent who was verbally abusive to a teacher must be confronted and corrected.  Ignoring sinful behavior in the school corrupts the school's culture.

HOW we speak the truth, however, is extremely important.  We should be clear and candid but gracious even if we have to confront the sinful behavior of others. 

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Eph. 4:15)

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Pro 15:1)

The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (Pro 16:21)

Turn the Other Cheek, Go the Extra Mile

Remember, LIFE AND MINISTRY ARE NOT ABOUT US!  When we remember that we are to "be living sacrifices" (Rom. 12:1-2) it is easier not to take personal offense when dealing with conflict.  Every action we take and every response we give, or don't give, reflects upon God's glory, His kingdom, the testimony of the Gospel, the reputation of our schools, and our leadership. 

When dealing with angry or unreasonable people, it is helpful to remember Jesus' instruction:

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:41-48)

We can demonstrate going the extra mile in our schools with a strong bias for "yes."  Extra MileIn other words, unless the request violates an important policy or foundational principle our bias should be to say yes.  While it is not always possible to agree, it is possible to agree to requests more often than we like to admit. 

One of the keys to saying "yes" is to avoid the "convenience" trap.  That is, if we are not vigilant we can too quickly say no because saying yes would require sacrifice and inconvenience.  Remember, sacrificial service not convenience, is Christ's example for our lives and ministries.

Take a moment to reflect on the following verses.

But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter." And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.

And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." (Mat 14:6-16)

Note several things:

1) Jesus has just been told about the beheading of John the Baptist.  His natural human response upon hearing this terrible news is that he sought solitude, perhaps a quiet place to grieve the loss. 

2) Jesus is inconvenienced.  The inconsiderate and insensitive crowd follows Jesus--demanding more of his time and energy--notwithstanding his own desire for solitude. 

3) Jesus does not feel sorry for himself, he does not ignore the needs of those around them, and he does not complain--instead--he gives of himself yet again in order to serve them.  Rather than feeling sorry for himself he has compassion on them!

Responding versus Reacting

 imageStop!  Pray! Think!  When confronted by an upset parent or employee, when reading a brusque or mean-spirited email, or when listening to an angry diatribe on the phone, do not immediately react.  Wait.  An immediate  emotionally driven response does not reflect the Fruit of the Spirit and will be counter-productive.

Rather than responding immediately take a moment to say a silent prayer.  Then reflect on the issue before responding to it. 

For example, I will often compose a response to an email and then set it aside for several hours or for a day.  Inevitably I find myself revising the email being careful with the words I choose to ensure that my response is not emotional, is clear and gracious, and deals with the facts, not the emotions surrounding the issue.image

I often employ Paul’s “sandwich” style as found in  his Epistles.  You are probably familiar with his style.  He starts out with a compliment or praise, moves to instruction/correction, and closes with praise or positive acknowledgment.  Here is an example from I Corinthians.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge-- even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you--(1Co 1:3-6) …


… But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ … (1Co 3:1) …


… The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen. (1Co 16:23-24)


Do not ignore the matter!  It will not go away.  Whatever the issue—address it.  Dr. Kynerd, our current Chancellor and former Superintendent, has given me very wise advice.  He counsels, “Under promise and over deliver.”  Reflect on the benefits of this statement for a moment.  What are the potential benefits if we under promise, over deliver, and always follow-up?  Conversely, what are the consequences if we over promise and under deliver?

Fruit of the Spirit

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)

When dealing with conflict, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How will my response reflect love?
  • How can I find joy in this situation for myself and for the one who is upset? (“count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Jas 1:2-3)
  • How can I show kindness EVEN if I am being “abused”?
  • What good deed/work can I perform in this situation?
  • How can I use this situation to demonstrate faithfulness to my Lord, to my calling and to my students, parents, and staff?
  • How am I reflecting gentleness in my response as I seek to “speak the truth in love?”
  • Am I demonstrating self-control or am I reacting?

Keeping Authorities Informed

image With the exception of gifts, people do not like surprises!  If you are dealing with an issue that is likely to come to the attention of a board member, the pastor, or others in positions of authority—inform them in advance of the situation.

I routinely give my board chairman and/or the pastors a “heads-up” on situations that may percolate.  Doing so is a courtesy to them so that they are not caught off guard.  It also fosters trust and gives you the opportunity to seek advice.  There is NO DOWNSIDE to this proactive communication!

Likewise, if there is bad news share it with the school board forthrightly.  Don’t sweep things under the rug, don’t pretend everything is fine if they aren’t.  You owe it to your board and others to keep them fully informed of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Making the Hard but Necessary Decisions

image Sometimes an effective response may be require a parting of the way.  For example, an employee may have to be dismissed or a parent may have to be told that the school can no longer serve him or her.  This should be a last resort measure but it may be necessary. 

Over the years I have had to make the unpleasant decision to terminate an employee or to tell a parent that his behavior is such that the school can no longer effectively serve his family.

Such decisions should only be made after much prayer, hard work, and longsuffering.  The highest levels of integrity must be maintained.  But failure to make these hard decisions is a failure of leadership. 

image When you make these hard decisions remember that you do not have the liberty of defending yourself to others.  With the exception of those with authority over us, we must not share information regarding the circumstances of our decision with others in order to justify ourselves.  We also do not have the liberty of gossiping (sharing something that is true is still gossip!).  The Scriptures are clear—“Love covers a multitude of sins.”  This does not mean that sin is swept under the rug—it means that we protect the reputations of our protagonists even if doing so causes others to question our leadership and decisions.  Again, this is NOT about us.

In Summary

  • Conflict cannot and should not be avoided
  • Use humor to diffuse anger
  • See conflict as an opportunity to disciple and/or to be discipled
  • Be humble
  • Listen
  • Speak the truth in love
  • Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile
  • Respond—don’t react
  • Follow-up
  • Demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit
  • Keep the appropriate authorities informed
  • Make the hard decisions