Have you ever seen someone you loved making terrible mistakes? Perhaps you sit and talk with her and she tells you about decision after decision that she is about to make that have time and time again led her to a bad place. Sure enough, a few days or weeks later, she tells you about the horrible situation she found herself in and you just have to sit and listen, trying not to wince.
As much as you want to advise her, or just take the wheel of her life for awhile and get her on track, it’s not that easy. As humans, people just don’t like to listen to what others have to say. Everyone thinks they know it all, no matter how many times they try something and fail. So how do we help?
The Bridge Is Out
I remember as a child reading a tract that was made to look like a comic book. (For those who didn’t have a dad who was a pastor and have no idea what a tract is, it’s simply a pamphlet that explains the message of Christianity to people who don’t know it.) As someone who was always very visual, these appealed to me.
As I recall this tract, the setting was a stormy night. Some catastrophe had taken a bridge out, and the main character in the tract had barely stopped in time. Grateful that he was still breathing and somewhat dazed, he stumbled out of the car and started walking away from the danger.
As he was walking, he saw his neighbor driving up. He knew there was danger and thought to warn him, but then he started to think better of it. He worried his neighbor might think him weird or preachy, so he held back. Sadly, the neighbor didn’t make it.
I Didn’t Say It Was Great Writing
Setting aside some dark tones and obvious flaws in the tract (for one, why didn’t the neighbor stop to say “Bill!? Are you okay? Why are you standing on the side of the road in this storm?”) the point is interesting: when we know people are headed for disaster, we want to step in. We want to warn them the bridge is out and we don’t want to see them hurt.
On top of that, it takes energy to constantly help people that cause themselves grief. About the fifth time we get a call that our friend’s car has broken down and he needs us to pick him up, we pepper a few expletives into a series of questions in our head: “Why in the world doesn’t he do the scheduled maintenance like I’ve told him to do hundreds of times?” Their problems seem to become our problems.
Does Anyone Have Some Spare Change?
So it’s not a surprise we want them to change. It’s painful to them. And not only do we not want to see them hurt, their troubles become our troubles.
Unfortunately, when dealing with people, how badly we want something doesn’t matter. We can beg, barter, coerce, and plead all day, and if they don’t want to do it, in the end, they won’t. Change is not something we can enact on someone else. Change is something they have to want.
Head vs. Heart
The problem is we see the problem and analyze it with our brains. We see it coolly from a somewhat non-involved viewpoint.
The people we want to help – our friend, sister, coworker – they see it first hand. They are immersed in it. They are emotionally invested. And, chances are – if they are making poor choices – they are making decisions with their heart.
That’s not to say they are wrong or even that their approach is wrong. What it is saying is that we need to approach them with our hearts. It’s not time to correct them or give them a 5-point plan. It’s time to listen and understand.
Enough Change to Go Around
Sometimes the person that needs to change the most in this situation is us. After all, we can see the pitfalls, we can see the dangers. However if we come at them from the wrong perspective, we won’t be able to pass that on to help them. We need to meet them where they are.
And who’s to say they are wrong? Maybe they are right. Maybe we are looking at it from the wrong direction, and they simply need a tweak in their plan instead of a complete overhaul. After all, if they are feeling something we don’t that means they have some insight we aren’t privy to.
Seek First to Understand
Which is why understanding is so important. The best thing we can do in these situations is to understand why this is important to them and why they see it the way they do. We may be surprised at their insight.
More importantly, it may help us to relate to them in a way that really helps us help them. It may build that bridge so that we don’t have to warn them about the danger below, but we can help to carry them to the other side.
As Steven Covey said, “Seek First to understand, then to be understood.” We can’t help people if we don’t know why they do what they do. Sometimes it’s just best to leave all judgement behind and seek to truly know the person in front of us as a human being. That is how we truly make a difference in their lives.
Next week, we will discover how America’s Funniest Videos provides wisdom in changing people’s minds. It’s even harder than you think.