Meet People Where they Are

even if you don’t know what to do when you get there

Have you ever stood on the sidelines of an event, or in the audience of a performance, and wondered what all the fuss was about? People are clapping, screaming, jumping, crying, fighting, fainting, and your left standing in the middle trying to figure out where the free ice cream truck must have pulled in. Upon realizing there is no free ice cream, you determine that everyone has taken leave of their senses, and quickly decide to leave with yours.

Approaching people with behavioral health programs can work the same way. Except for this time, we are the ones all jazzed up on well-intended ideals. We want people to make healthy choices. We want them to limit sodium, added sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. We want them to start moving more. We want them to stop smoking. We want them to wear seat belts, use earplugs, get vaccinated, have protected sex, get enough sleep, drink enough water. And on and on and on. We want them to submit to this long list of to do’s because quantitative scientific evidence proves that such choices minimize the risk of illness, injury, and death.

Who doesn’t want that? Are we not doing people a favor by providing programs and disseminating health information? Surely they must be misinformed or misguided if they are making unhealthy choices, right?

And here is where our message often stops. We ramble off statistics, provide riveting testimonials, offer free classes, suggest apps where they can track everything they do or don’t do, and there are no changes. Or it works for a week, maybe a couple of months, but no longer.

Why?

Because we are not meeting people where they are in terms of willingness and readiness. We may ask a few questions. We may furrow our brow and nod our head to indicate that we are listening. But in reality, we are patiently waiting for them to stop talking so we can get back to how beneficial our program or service is.

Meeting people where they are means letting go of the impulse to treat the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. It means adjusting our approach and changing our expectations. It means being willing to tolerate a bit of artistic chaos to create a compelling and powerful program that will reach who it is intended to reach.

We may not know what to do once we meet people where they are. We may stand there with a stunned look on our face and an upside-down sign in our hand. Our willingness to be there with them, as awkward as we may feel, will do more to endear our cause (their health!) than any fanfare or spectacle.

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