Pastors deal with difficult people. Counseling, after all, is a part of the call to shepherd God’s people, but without the proper tools, challenging people can sap energy, leaving pastors drained.

With practice and a few strategic tools, however, pastors can learn to have conversations that echo into eternity.

Jim Coffield, professor of counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando, says the first step in dealing with difficult people is to deal with lots of people. When it comes to conversations, Coffield observes,  communication generally falls into one of three categories: competitive, informational, and connecting.

In competitive conversations, the goal is to win. Individuals try to one-up each other without really engaging. These conversations are never helpful, and they’re always exhausting, Coffield said.

Informational conversations simply transmit information. That’s helpful, but these conversations shouldn’t be our primary way of relating to others.

Instead, our goal should be connecting conversations. Coffield says that Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is a good model. Without sacrificing truth, connecting conversations engage with heart issues.

Healing People Lightly

Several years ago, Coffield visited a neighbor whose father had just died. As he walked up the steps to greet him, Coffield realized that in the 13 years he had known the man they had never had a significant conversation.

The realization caused him to cry out for forgiveness. The words of Jeremiah 6:14 echo as a warning for those who deal with hurting people, he says:  “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

The Lord has called believers to do more than heal wounds lightly, Coffield says. Connecting conversations help us dig deeper. Only then can pastors speak the Gospel into the dark corners of the heart.

Anatomy of a Connecting Conversation

Connecting conversations, Coffield said, should move from external circumstances, to internal feelings, to eternal implications.

Conversations naturally start by discussing externals: “How have you been?”  “What’s going on?” Most people are comfortable there.

But, Coffield said, “to make the conversation significant, you must go internal.” If a parishioner wants to complain about a neglectful spouse, push for an internal conversation by asking “What is that like for you?” When a friend is frustrated by a wayward son, dig deeper by asking “How are you feeling about that?”

Most people want to talk about things we can’t fix or about people who aren’t in the session, Coffield says, “but you can’t fix someone who isn’t in the room.” The counselor’s job is to reroute the discussion toward the person who is in the room.

Finally, pastors can move the conversation toward the eternal by asking what God might be doing. “What is God up to in this situation? How can this be redeemed?”

Conversations echo into eternity when we remind each other that God’s story doesn’t end in tragedy. We should move past clichés to our hope that the story ends well. When we have our eyes focused on what God is doing, we leave room for the Holy Spirit to move a competitive conversation to a connecting one.

Coffield’s comments were part of a seminar entitled “The Difficulties of Dealing with Difficult People,” delivered at the 2016 General Assembly. Purchase the entire audio recording here.

Coffield is the author of “Shaping Your Family Story” released in 2016.

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