If you want to take people somewhere else, first meet them where they are

The more I write about crisis, the more people tell me stories about things that have happened to them. Every once in a while a type of story reaches critical mass in my mental collection and I’m compelled to write about it. This is one of those times.

So, here’s a thing that happens. You have a friend or family member you care about deeply, someone who is struggling with illness, loss, or any other serious personal crisis. You see this person’s state of mind, and you worry it’s not a healthy or beneficial one. You know of what you might call a “better place” – one where you are, or one where you have been before, or one you simply know about and feel would help this person. Out of love, you want to bring this person there.

What do people in this situation do? At times a person will try to pull a friend or family member to that (seemingly) better place, perhaps using the “S” word (should) in an effort to convince him or her to give it a chance. “You should get over it.” “You should live in the moment.” “You should exercise/sleep/pray/stop praying/socialize/meditate/move away/redecorate/do yoga/get therapy/drink less/drink more/go Paleo/juice/etc./etc./etc.” If the person in crisis feels parented or bullied and resists the advice, it creates frustration on the part of the one trying to help. Then the potentially better place receives no new visitor, and anger and resentment grow, and two people with good intentions may be farther apart than when the conversation started, and no one wins.

Wanting to bring improvement and enlightenment to others is a human and often loving impulse. However, doing so without first feeling out someone’s current state of being can be like gesticulating and hollering from far away, leaving a person struggling to understand you and perhaps inclined to stop trying. Also, when people sense disapproval of the mental “place” where they live right now, they may dig in all the more. Anyone who has been told to “move on” may relate to this (I have not, for the record, but I hear the story over and over again from others).

If you want to encourage people to travel somewhere you think might benefit them, first take the time and attention to meet them where they are. Exactly where they are. Walk over there, crawl sideways, slide down, whatever it takes, and be with them there. Accept this place as real. Understand that this place, no matter how negative or damaging it seems to you, is where they need to be at this moment for whatever reason – and let them know that.

(Yes, sometimes people in crisis may engage in behaviors that could be harmful to themselves or others. Cases like this may call for more assertive action than I am advocating here.)

On the cushion of trust and respect that your presence has created, present the new idea – the other place – you want them to consider. Talk about the benefits that you or others have experienced there. Acknowledge that this place may or may not feel right for them now, and that the journey there could be challenging. Offer to accompany them in whatever way would be welcome.

Then leave the choice for them to make. They may choose to take up the journey now, or perhaps later, or maybe not at all.

If they do not choose to go now, be accepting and stay present. Let them know the place you have described is available any time. Set judgment aside, even if you feel they are mired in unproductive habits and thoughts. The less judgment is involved, the more likely people will explore the place when they are ready. And isn’t that your goal, after all? That someone you care about experience something that could bring them peace and comfort and hope? It doesn’t matter how wonderful a place is if a person, feeling judged and degraded, refuses to take a single step toward it.

On the other hand, if people accept your offer, walk with them on whatever path they need to take. Accept any turning back, detours, or stops along the way. Let them be driven by their needs and supported by your respectful, nonjudgmental presence. Finally, if and when they arrive, stand back and let them experience it in their own way. Your gift was the idea to go – trust now that they will find and take what further gifts they need.

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