How to deal with stubborn and resistant people

Humanity has been full of folks who are stubborn and resistant. This is not new. As long as there have been humans, there has been stubbornness and resistance. As long as there are humans, those things will exist. We aren’t going to eliminate stubbornness and resistance. We can’t make it go away by just being nice to people in the hopes that they will change. We can’t make it go away by trying to eliminate all the stubborn and resistant people either.

So the question is – what do we do? How do you proceed when you encounter someone who is stubborn and resistant?

First, let’s acknowledge something unpleasant – Stubborn and resistant people include you and I as well. We don’t like to consider ourselves stubborn and resistant, but I’m willing to bet that you have been those things. I know I have plenty of times. This means that stubborn and resistant people aren’t bad or evil, just as you and I are not evil just because we have been stubborn and resistant.

People are complicated and their lives are messy. There are many reasons why someone becomes stubborn and resistant. Maybe someone broke their trust with that person. Maybe they screwed over on something. Maybe they suffered a loss. Maybe they live in fear. Who knows. It helps us to see the image of God in stubborn and resistant people. It humanizes the person and allows us to see their humanity and how connected we are to them. It changes us. It allows us to see that fighting the stubbornness and resistance is not the goal. You don’t go through pothole when you are driving, you go around it. Likewise, you don’t try to do a frontal assault on stubbornness and resistance, you go around it.

Here’s one way to deal with someone who is stubborn and resistant – pay attention and study that person. Are they very vocal in their resistance and stubbornness? Do they try to bully others into staying with their way? Always survey the scene to gain an understanding of what it going on. Once you have an understanding of the context, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation and with the person who is stubborn and resistant.

Those that are most resistant, the most vocal, those inclined to use bullying tactics to get their way are really not confident of their way. So they turn to the use of force to compel others to change to adopt their way. The idea being that there can’t be a judgement of ways if only one way is adopted. There is nothing to compare it to. It also means that the person believes they have a sense of control. Often people try to use force in order to create a sense of control. Something in their life is out of their control and it creates fear and anxiety for them. It’s not easy to deal with the reality that we have very little control over anything. It scares many people.

Dualistic thinking, like this, is ultimately about gaining a sense of control. When there are only two options, it makes life much simpler for people – am I right or wrong? Am I orthodox or in heresy? Am I with the right group or the wrong group? There is not third option, which simplifies the decisions. It also ignores the reality of complexity. But for many people, complexity is just too much to handle.

So what do we do when we encounter the resistant and stubborn? It’s easier to start with what we don’t do. Don’t have a frontal assault on them. Don’t go right after the heart of their argument. That’s attacking a fortress – a place someone is well prepared to defend. So, for instance, take the pandemic. If you are dealing with someone who is anti-vaccination, don’t debate the vaccine. They are prepared for that. They have thought about the dangers. They have a list in their head of the reasons why they don’t want it and the more you push on the vaccine, the less likely they are to get it because people don’t like to be told what to do. Attacking them on the vaccine will only be an assault on their fortress.

Instead, go around the fortress. Talk about the fears that people have – that’s the real concern anyway. Talk about their loved ones and how they care about their safety. Talk about people with names and faces and stories. When we turn something like the vaccine from an abstract issue to be debated to something that has flesh and bones, then it becomes real and is no longer an issue. It’s something that actually affects real lives.

Granted, this is time consuming. This is investing in people. It moves us away from a concern about being right, to treating people right. I can’t control what others say, do, think, or believe. I can only choose how I will act and interact with others. And so I have to follow my faith, which is about transformation of people’s lives, as well as communities, and the world. I can’t force this on anyone. All I can do is proclaim a different way of being and invite people into that.

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