The phrase "meet people where they are" is widely used in social work and in the so called helping professions. I hear it very often also in my work of consulting with companies.
I have started asking myself what this actually means and what it takes to meet people where they are. It has different layers:
- Going out into the community
- Meeting people where they are in terms of their background and knowledge
- Meeting people on the emotional level.
What does it take to achieve this “meeting”?
- asking the right questions at the right time.
It requires often to begin a relationship by asking people to describe their situation as they understand it. This gives us a pretty good idea of where we can begin our conversation. The goal is to make sure we have a shared understanding of the situation. A true understanding often comes from deep listening - especially to the unspoken - and observing body language to help guide the conversation.
To meet people where they are emotionally, we have to respecttheir perspective while also explaining how it can coexist with other’s.
All very good intentions, right?
Once I stopped and tried to explain that phrase to someone who is actually going to be “met where they are,” it hit me. It became clear how paternalistic it can be.
Meeting people where they are also means creating an environment in which they can be who they are. This means that it never implies the judgment of: “I know exactly what they’re thinking or I know exactly why they’re holding back.” People are where they are, despite our desire for them to be different, more of something or less of something else. When we truly meet them, with no expectation or wish for something different we have the compassion, the humility and the wisdom to serve. People - we as well - are where they are, that is a fact that needs to be considered and it requires to engage authentically with them. It’s the only way change happens.
It doesn't mean uniquely diagnosing people˙ values, style, needs, and their emotions. Even when we are called to do that as mentors, coaches, healers, etc. It must move beyond the diagnosis phase.
A true “meeting” will open up something beyond whether either person started. The two-part approach opens the door to a dialogue (flow of meaning) and to the potential of meeting each other where nobody was when we started.
It means having the courage to enter a dialogue opening up to new ways. Ways we did not consider before or that we were not aware of when we started.
If I were to give a new list, my own, of what it takes to meeting people where they are, this is it for me:
- Clarify the meaning and the purpose we are meeting the other person(s).
- Meet with people implies we are part of it not separate from it.
- Be willing to be transformed in the process rather than focusing on only changing others.
- Practice the art of connecting not projecting.
- Practice silence which isn't simply and only remaining silent, not talking; it is silencing our judging mind.
- See the other person as whole not just as what we want to fix or change so we can “meet” them.
- Caring is more important than knowing.
- Let people be where they want to be not where we want them to be.
There is one last point I would like us to reflect on. A reminder for all and especially for those who are in the mentoring, coaching and healing field. When we use assessment tool-kits, are we using them as initial tool to assess the situation or do we make it a tool of judgement? Do we trap others and ourselves in certain categories forgetting the unlimited possibilities and multitudes a human being is? I am not disregarding the value of any tool-kit. They are useful to understand and as a starting point not as a destination. They become a tiny box of confinement in the hands of those who cannot pass their limitations.