Part 2 of the Series, Dealing with Difficult People

We all know someone who pushes our buttons. 

If you want to be happier in ministry, don’t let difficult people get under your skin! Discover how understanding one basic human instinct will change the outcome of some very challenging interactions.

When Instinct overrides our Logical Thinking Brains, bad things can happen.

Our emotions bubble up.

  • We say things we don’t mean
  • We express anger we didn’t even know we had
  • What we want to say comes out sideways

Or maybe it’s just the opposite and you end up in a ball of paralysis. Later questioning yourself.

  • Why did I let her speak to me like that?
  • I can’t believe I didn’t say anything!
  • Why do I think of great comebacks too late?

If you ever find yourself in either of these situations, this series on Dealing with Difficult People is for you.

In PART 1, we talked about Keeping Your Cool with Angry People. Our first step, as Christians, is to align our beliefs with God’s Truth. Without this spiritual foundation, it’s impossible to truly love the most challenging humans!

Here in PART 2, we delve into understanding the Fight or Flight Instinct. It’s all about growing our emotional intelligence a bit so our responses don’t end up in a pile of regret.

PART 3 explores how to Rise Above the Storm of Toxic People. Take a deep dive into tools to emotionally separate ourselves from spiraling situations. So we can smile at our success, be proud of our responses, and stand firm on our foundation.

UNDERSTANDING FIGHT OR FLIGHT IN CHURCH RELATIONSHIPS

I stood in the hallway with voices raising. And I knew there was no point. 

I spoke to myself: 

This person literally cannot think rationally right now. Neurotransmitters are firing in crazy directions. Don’t defend. Don’t explain. Don’t take it personally. Don’t judge. His brain is overloading. It’s gonna take a bit.

This wasn’t the first time. And it wasn’t the first person.

  • If you raised toddlers, you’ve seen this.
  • If you parented teenagers, you’ve experienced it.
  • If you serve in a church, you’ve cried over it.

We can’t understand it, because it is not understandable. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t rational. 

Emotional flares. Unexpected Blowups. Disproportionate Responses.

I have been on the receiving end many times. And, regretfully, I’ve been on the giving end of this one too.

So here’s the truth.

If humans perceive a threat, an instinct called FIGHT OR FLIGHT kicks in.

Simply put, when Fight or Flight kicks in, your body gives you a whole bunch of energy so you can beat someone up. Or run away fast.

Thus, FIGHT OR FLIGHT.

And the church is not immune to instinct.

This is what we’re up against in raving, angry, and heated conversations. 

It is also what we face in the brick-wall, shut-down, and slam-the-door exchanges.

We need to understand it, so we can respond to it.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS SELF-AWARENESS THAT LEADS TO CHANGE

While Emotional Intelligence is a bit of a buzzword today, it’s not new. 

God has made the human body with unimaginable complexity. It’s powerful. It’s intuitive. It’s stunning really.

The systems that keep the body functioning are intricately connected.

  • You cannot understand your emotions if you don’t comprehend your created physiology. 
  • You cannot make good choices if you don’t understand your emotions.
  • You cannot have good relationships if you don’t make good choices.

Understanding your own emotions (the first step to emotional intelligence) is key to better relationships with others.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT SHUTS DOWN AN OTHERWISE RATIONAL, THINKING BRAIN

Your nervous system affects every other system in your body. Your heart. Your hormones. Your muscles. Your digestion. Your breathing. Even the system that fights infection. Every system impacts the other. 

WIthout using scientific words that I can’t even pronounce, the simple truth is this:

  • If you perceive a threat, your sympathetic nervous system is activated
  • Physically, your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets shallow and quick, your muscles tighten
  • AND … YOU CAN’T THINK STRAIGHT!

This is Fight or Flight.

Now God created us with this instinct to protect us. So it must be good.

And sometimes it is.

Fight or Flight is a great response to imminent danger. On the defense, ready to run away or beat someone up. Our emotions can rage. 

Self-control gets a bit lost. 

It’s supposed to! Because our rational, thinking brain would slow us down too much. 

BECAUSE TIGERS ARE FAST!

HOWEVER, MOST OF US ARE NOT BEING CHASED BY A SABER TOOTH TIGER

In today’s society, when our hearts race and our blood pressures rise, most of us are not cornered by a hungry animal looking to pounce on us. (although it might feel like it!)

There is a perceived (but not real) threat of imminent danger. 

Have you ever noticed your heart racing when someone chews their food too loudly or talks too much in your small group? A toddler fussing during the sermon? Someone obliviously enjoying coffee while others are working hard to set up for an event?

The more often our Fight of Flight gets activated, the more frequent it becomes.

So our society reflects chronic stress and much more irritation and anger than it needs. 

Understanding this is the foundation for solution.

STOP TRYING TO RATIONALIZE WITH A PERSON WHO IS IN FIGHT OR FLIGHT MODE

Have you ever eaten an ice cream cone outside in the Arizona summer? It’s impossible to do without making a huge mess.

Same with trying to talk with someone in Fight or Flight Mode. So quit trying. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s not rational. Or proportional. Or fair.

It doesn’t matter who is right. Or who is wrong. 

Once Fight or Flight is in motion, rational thinking has left the premises.

Did you know that it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to recover from a Fight or Flight stress reaction? 

Yes, up to 2 hours! And that’s once the stress is eliminated! 

If the perceived threat continues, so does the reaction. The stronger the stress reaction, the longer the recovery time.

During Fight or Flight, we are actually incapable of rational thought. 

That’s why a discussion with someone who’s in the Fight or Flight mode (you or the other person) can have no positive resolution.

TURN FIGHT OR FLIGHT INTO GROUNDED & SURROUNDED

In the great majority of situations today, God does not call us to beat someone up or run away. 

2 Timothy 1:7 says, For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 

“A sound mind.” That means rational.

Instead of Fight or Flight, God calls us to be Grounded & Surrounded. 

YOU ARE GROUNDED

Can you picture an amazing bulky tree. Standing in a field. Branches wide and tall. Did you know that most tree roots spread at least 2 to 3 times wider than its branches? In favorable soil, it’s even wider.

That’s you. If you are connected to good soil (AKA God, His Word, His Community) your roots reach deep and strong and wide.

You are GROUNDED.

There is no need for panic, even in rough weather. There is no need to fear, even in a storm. Not if you are grounded. 

Jeremiah 17:7-8

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

YOU ARE SURROUNDED

When I find myself in Fight or Flight, I always feel alone. I feel powerless. Unprotected. That’s why Fight or Flight kicks in. That’s fear.

As a Christian, however, you are never as utterly alone as you may feel. 

Turning Fight or Flight into Grounded & Surrounded doesn’t mean you need other people physically with you.

There is something about our God that transcends “alone.”

Not just physically, but spiritually too.

2 Kings 6 tells the story of an Angel Army

Elisha was about to be attacked by this huge army. His servant came to him terrified, and Elisha responded, “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

The problem was, the servant didn’t see anyone but the enemy. Elisha prayed that God would open his eyes, and He did. An even bigger Angel Army was there to fight for Elisha.

Sometimes when we are in Fight or Flight, all we see is the enemy. We need to ask God to open our eyes.

Hebrews 12:1 says …

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us …”

This great cloud of witnesses is not an angel army like Elisha had. However, it is a reminder that we are not alone!

This path we are walking has been walked by many before us. Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Samuel (see Hebrews 11) … and even the Lord himself. 

Deuteronomy 31: 8 says, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Reminding yourself you are Grounded & Surrounded will help center you when you want to run and hide.

Being GROUNDED & SURROUNDED beats FIGHT OR FLIGHT any day!

3 KEYS TO REMAIN GROUNDED & SURROUNDED

1) Tune in to your Own Fight or Flight Response

The more self-aware you are, the quicker you will notice your heart rate quickening, your muscles tightening.

The earlier you remind yourself there is no tiger, the better!

If the Fight or Flight instinct isn’t needed, call on your “sound mind” and kick that instinct out. It doesn’t have to stay.

Picture a huge tree with deep roots. Picture an Angel Army. Picture God Himself in your corner. 

2) Recognize Fight or Flight in Others

When you are interacting with others, notice them. Not just their words.

Become an observer of people. Notice their breathing. Their muscle tension. Pale skin. Shaking.

If you notice Fight or Flight in others, offer grace. Know that in this moment, their logical, rational brain has been overtaken.

You might just be their perceived saber tooth tiger. It doesn’t have to make sense, but this is not the time for processing logically.

Choosing when to speak (and when not to) can be even more important than the words you say.

3) Teach Others About the Fight or Flight Instinct

Start a new culture & share this knowledge with your friends, ministry team and your family.

The more people in your circle who understand Fight or Flight, the better.

This is a great topic for a ministry team training. Not in response to a specific difficult person or conversation. Just as a general life skill.

As we develop relationships, understanding the Fight or Flight instinct is important.

And you will watch healthier relationships emerge as your team grows together in emotional intelligence and better communication skills.

CREATE THE SPACE TO CHOOSE YOUR RESPONSES

I love this quote from Stephen R. Covey:

“Between what happens TO us and how we react to what happens is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose.” 

In order to respond thoughtfully, instead of by instinct, we need to …

  • Understand the Fight or Flight Instinct
  • Practice creating space for Choosing Our Thoughts

Part 3 of the Dealing with Difficult People Series (How to Rise Above the Storm of Toxic People) shares specific, practical tools to emotionally separate ourselves from spiraling situations. So we can smile at our success, be proud of our responses, and stand firm on our foundation.

AS WOMEN IN SMALL CHURCHES, YOU DO NOT STAND ALONE

Many of us at times, feel very alone. You are not. Women in Small Churches all across the globe are facing the same challenges as you. Women who have walked before us. And women who will come after us. 

I hope you will become part of this community at The Creative Little Church as we learn how to walk this road together.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9  “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

CHECK OUT A FEW OTHER POSTS FOR WOMEN IN MINISTRY:

For Part 1 of this Series: Keeping Your Cool with Angry People

A Pastor’s Wife’s Journey with Depression