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Since Strangling Isn't an Option....
by Tom Goodman
June 25, 2010

I read a New York Times article entitled, "Help, I'm Surrounded by Jerks."  Maybe you can identify:

Certain mortals have the power to sink hearts and sour moods with lightning speed.  The hysterical colleague.  The meddlesome neighbor.  The crazy in-law.  The explosive boss.  A mélange of cantankerous individuals, they are united by a single achievement:  They make life miserable.....  Everyone knows at least one person who can set the blood boiling.  They can be found in corporate offices, on co-op boards, in church choirs, and on university faculties.  They are the office Cassandra who predicts doom for every project her team initiates, the intimidating boss for whom nothing is ever good enough, and the unreasonable receptionist at the motor vehicles office.

According to the story there are "scores of seminars, workbooks, and multimedia tools to help people co-exist with those they wish did not exist."  Consider some of the colorful titles of the books:

  • 151 Quick Ideas to Deal With Difficult People
  • Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst
  • Thank You for Being Such a Pain: Spiritual Guidance for Dealing With Difficult People

Then there's my favorite title for a book on this subject:  Since Strangling Isn't an Option.

In addition to books individuals can read, there are seminars that employees of entire offices can attend:

  • Duke Law School offers a workshop called "Dealing With Conflict and Difficult People."
  • Harvard Law School has a seminar called "Dealing With Difficult People and Difficult Situations."
  • The Graduate School at the United States Department of Agriculture has scheduled more than half a dozen seminars entitled, "Positive Approaches to Difficult People."

Why the increased popularity of such courses?  Nan Harrison, the vice president of training resources and publication sales for CareerTrack, which every month presents more than 50 public "difficult people" seminars across the country, says it's because of a desire to improve workplace skills in a time of corporate downsizing and a more competitive job market.

Of course, not everyone sees difficult people as a problem to be solved.  "Having somebody who is really difficult can actually be good for the workplace," said Jo-Ellen Pozner, a researcher in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.  "If everyone really hates this one person, it becomes the basis of social bonding for the rest of the group."

Um, well, that's one way of looking at it!  Hopefully that was said in jest.

It's good to know that personnel leaders in the business world have recognized that people need help in getting along.

The Apostle Paul heard of difficult people in one of his favorite churches, the church at Philippi.  Writing to them, he addressed the battling believers by name: "I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord" (Philippians 4:2).  Obviously, clashes between believers arose even in the earliest churches two thousand years ago.

 Paul used a tender word -- he said "I plead" -- and he used it with each woman:  I plead with Euodia, I plead with Syntyche.  As an apostle of authority, he could have said "I command."  In fact, he did command some things in his letters.  But here he sets his authority aside, he lays his dignity down, in effect he gets on his knees in front of these two women and takes their hands, looks with kindness and pleading into their eyes, and says, "I beg you both to mend your differences."

I wonder what created the tensions between Euodia and Syntyche in the first place.  Do you think it was because Euodia wanted blue carpet in the church building and Syntyche wanted green?  Maybe Euodia was passionate about a particular project she wanted the church involved in, and Syntyche stood in the way.  Could it be that one had been in the church longer than the other?

Whatever the reason, ironically enough neither one lived up to their names.  Do you know what "Euodia" means?  A eulogy is what we share at a funeral -- a "eu-logy" means a good word.  "Eu-odia" means a "good odor."  Euodia means fragrant, aromatic, sweet-smelling.  But Euodia was raising one holy stink in the church at Philippi!

On the other hand, Syntyche is the Greek word for "fortunate."  But I don't imagine the Philippian church felt very fortunate to have Syntyche disrupting things!

So, even though the church at Philippi was Paul's favorite congregation, you find out that people in the almost-perfect church were still, well, people.  And there's no doubt that Euodia and Syntyche weren't the only ones who had locked horns:  I'm sure they had their supporters and sympathizers in the Philippian church.

Isn't it sad that the only thing we know about Euodia and Syntyche is what we read here in Philippians 4.  Wouldn't it be sad if the only memory people had of you was some controversy you stirred up, or some difference you refused to mend, or some decision of the church you just couldn't put behind you.  Let's make a commitment to be remembered for far better things.

But Paul doesn't stop there.  While still on his knees, before Euodia and Syntyche, he turns to someone he calls his "loyal yokefellow" and says, "Help these women make their peace."

Sometimes believers are like Euodia and Syntyche:  We have to lay aside our animosity and distrust so we can work out our differences.  But other times believers are called to be like this "loyal yokefellow" and bring battling believers to the negotiating table.

It's a word to pay attention to as we work to get along in our families and our offices.  But it's especially applicable to the church we lead.

No, I'm not referring to anything specific going on at Hillcrest.  But it's important in a time of peace to point out what to do to mend things in the inevitable times of conflict.  We can't afford to get sidetracked from our mission.  Our purpose is to get people on the path (evangelism) and up the H.I.L.L. (discipleship).  When difficult people distract us from that calling, we have to deal with the difficult or fail our mission.


(This LeaderLines article originally appeared in January 2007.)

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