6 Early Warning Signs You’re Dealing With a Toxic Person

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You’ve dealt with them before. At your church, as a volunteer, on your staff, and as customers.

Toxic people are, well, toxic.

An unhealthy person can infect your team like toxins infect the human body. After some exposure, everyone feels sick.

The optimist in you and me hope toxic people will become better. The good news is, sometimes they do.

Unhealthy people can grow healthier with the right care and attention in a healthy environment.

But some toxic people just don’t. Some remain difficult, despite all attempts.

And as you know, if you don’t address toxic church members—or worse, let them gain influence—they can infect your whole organization, diminishing your effectiveness and taking everyone’s focus off the mission.

An unhealthy person can infect your team like toxins infect the human body. Click To Tweet

So…how can you tell early on that the person you’re dealing with might be that person?

Here are 6 signs:

1. They come on too strong

In my experience as a pastor, the people who show up and want to make it headline news are rarely (I’m being generous here) healthy people. What’s perplexing is that the people who end up being the most toxic at the end of the relationship are over-the-top positive when they first meet you.

I have learned to be suspicious when people tell me on first meeting and first hearing, “That’s the best message I’ve ever heard in my life!” or “This is the best church I’ve ever been to anywhere.”

I find usually the people who are moderately impressed or even neutral on the first visit and warm up over time are the ones who are most healthy in the long run.

People who come on strong when they first meet you usually leave just as loudly.

People who come on strong when they first meet you usually leave just as loudly. Click To Tweet

2. They give you advice during your first meeting.

Whether it’s a casual conversation or even a job interview, people who tell 15 ways you can improve your organization or your speaking often end up being toxic people.

Are there ways we can improve our organization? Of course.

Can you improve your speaking? Sure you can.

But when someone leads off with loads of advice…well, that’s just not healthy.

When people I first meet start telling me about all the ways we can improve our church, I thank them and tell them point blank we’re probably not the church for them and offer to help them find a new one.

Healthy people never give you loads of advice the first time they meet you. Unhealthy people do. Click To Tweet

3. They tell rather than waiting to be asked.

Naturally, we all have opinions that are valid. But in a healthy human relationship, we reserve opinions about others until we are asked the share them.

Toxic people rarely do. Toxic people volunteer them (see #2 above).

If someone is telling you things all the time and never waits to be asked, it’s a sign of toxicity.

(In really close relationships, it’s natural to volunteer opinions. But it’s done with humility, respect, and concern for the person.)

Toxic people tell you everything about themselves. Healthy people wait to be asked. Click To Tweet

4. They want to be the center of attention.

They hijack conversations. They never ask questions. They want to get involved too soon.

They tell you what they’re an expert in. They tell you what they think.

They tell you about their amazing track record. They tell you about their accomplishments. They demand your attention. Truly healthy people wait to be asked.

Toxic people want to be the center of attention. Healthy people, not so much. Click To Tweet

5. You hear from them far too often in the first month.

Often a toxic person, because they want to be the center of attention, will try to get on your calendar soon.

They’ll email you, call you, ask for breakfast, and try to figure out how they can ‘help’ or be influential early on.

Again, most great leaders wait to be asked.

They have the humility to be obscure for a while and serve rather than want to be served.

Great leaders don't mind being obscure leaders. They don't have to be noticed. Click To Tweet

6. They have a track record of moving around.

Usually, a person who comes on that strong has a history of moving around.

When I’m picking up some of the other signs, I’ll ask a question such as “Tell me where you’ve gone to church over the last few years.”

Often people will tell me about 3 or 4 churches they’ve been to (flag) or about a major schism they were a part of that caused them to leave their last church (big flag).

Hint: If someone left 5 churches in the last 5 years, they’re probably leaving yours too.

If someone left 5 churches in the last 5 years, they're probably leaving yours too. Click To Tweet

What Do You See?

If a person displays one or two signs that may not demonstrate they’re toxic, but if the person displays 5 or 6, it’s fairly good evidence you might be dealing with a toxic person:

So what do you do with someone like this?

For starters, put up clear boundaries.

Don’t let them get involved. Watch carefully. Usually, if you don’t give them influence, the truly toxic ones leave.

And if, after watching them for a few months (true character is revealed over time) you realize you’re wrong (which I have been), then you can invite them to get involved.

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Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

And yes, especially, if you could make a bigger difference by increasing your budget by 20%, 30%, or even 40%.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.