“Meet them where they are” is a phrase that is growing in popularity in 2021. But what does it mean? And what kinds of implications does it have on our relationships with others?
Months ago, I was rewatching the 3rd season of Queer Eye on Netflix. In the episode with Joey—the summer camp project manager—he said something to the Fab 5 that struck me. He said,
“I thought I was gonna get a lot of finger wags and like, ‘oh my god, that guy is gross.’ I’m grateful that you met me where I was instead of trying to take me.”
Meet Them Where They Are, Not Where You Want Them to Be
Although “Meet them where they are” tends to be a phrase used for teachers, social workers and other “helping” professions, I want go out on a limb and say that this applies to everyone in today’s society. Because every single person is in a position of authority over someone.
When you are in a position of authority, as in a teacher, social worker, police officer, or even a parent, it is easy to lay down judgment on others. The Fab Five were clearly in a position of authority on Joey (and all the other people on the show) as they help them live a better version of their lives. After all, “assessment” is inherently part of these professions and life roles. It’s a teacher’s job to evaluate her students’ work. It’s a father’s job to evaluate his child’s behavior.
Sometimes, even when yourself and a friend have different professions, it’s easy to assume the role of authority and try to “teach” your friend something about what you know better.
But “meet them where they are” implies assessment NOT JUDGMENT.
The Difference Between Assessment and Judgment
The basic difference between assessment and judgment is that assessment is positive and judgment is negative. But there’s more to it than that.
Judgment is to form, give, or have an opinion or to decide about something or someone. OR: to express a bad opinion of someone’s behavior often because you think you are better than them.
Assessment is a process of collecting, reviewing and using data, for the purpose of improvement in the current performance.
As we can see, assessment is objective. It gives someone, i.e. a teacher or police officer, the tools they need to determine an outcome of something. It’s based on observation of neutral data to legitimately help someone. Whereas judgment is assuming that another person should be at a certain level regardless of whether they’ve received all the necessary tools and skills to help them get there. Judgment is placing yourself above your pupil, the citizen, your client and looking down on them.
With assessment, you can get to the other person’s level to understand and interpret where they are and how to help them.
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What does it mean to meet someone where they are?
Here’s the bottom line:
Meeting someone where they are means bridging the gap between your own expectations and where the other person is coming from. It means intentionally listening to understand their values, needs, desires, and even their trauma-responses. To “meet them where they are” is a skill everyone should learn.
The honest truth is that sometimes, we try to help people by taking them along with us. We are quick to give advice and to get upset when the other doesn’t follow it. We make assumptions and offer advice even when the person hasn’t asked for it.
Here’s another quote I love by novelist and writer Brad Meltzer:
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
People will rarely ask of you, “Meet me where I am.” Take it upon yourself to meet people where they are.
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How to meet people where they are:
Having conversations with people will reveal what a person needs, if you have the patience to truly observe. They might not tell you with words, but perhaps their body language shares something about how they’re really doing.
Or maybe they boast about something (I’ve learned that often when people are bragging or boasting about something, it’s actually because they’re INSECURE and trying to convince THEMSELVES that it’s all good.)
Understanding a person’s behavior can help you to reach them if they are in need of something.
Additionally, when you have a conversation with someone, if you feel your desire to interrupt them bubbling over, stop yourself. Remember, listening happens when you aren’t hearing to respond, but hearing to understand in the present moment.
2. Be aware of your preconceived ideas about culture, societal norms, and the “way things should be”
Even the most open-minded of us have structures within our brains that tell us how life is supposed to be. In most cases, these schemas’ foundations were built when we were too young to know better.
(This is the idea behind the term “racial bias”. We’re not intentionally being racist, but even the most compassionate, loving people can have bias that prevents them from truly seeing past someone’s ethnicity or race.)
For example, I believe that breastfeeding is best, and I harbor a tremendous amount of guilt about switching my first son to formula at 4 months. That guilt often comes out as judgment toward other mothers who choose to formula feed from the beginning. This prevents me from having the most authentic conversations and relationship with people because of my judgment.
Release your cultural judgments to really meet that person where they are.
3. Watch your judgmental words
Even the best of us judge others from time to time. Developing an awareness of what judgment looks like and sounds like (and even feels like) can help us prevent from being judgmental in the first place.
For example, maybe you’re someone who feels angry and has the need to defend yourself, and judgment happens when you feel that another person’s words are a slight against you. Or perhaps you “put up a wall” when someone says something that is of a different opinion than yours in order to protect yourself.
Noticing these very slight changes in your own energy, body language, and thoughts is a way that you can stop yourself before saying something judgmental.
And it’s okay to talk about the thing you find yourself judging! Just make sure to respond instead of react, and come from a place of trying to understand. When you get stuck, go on to #4 and #5 and ask the other person some open-ended questions or repeat things back to that person.
4. Repeat things back to the other person
This is a technique used by all kinds of professionals, from personal development gurus to teachers to psychologists. When someone says something that you would like to know more about, or want to clarify for your own understanding, use that person’s words and repeat them back to them.
Say for instance your significant other starts an argument. They are clearly upset. They say something like, “You don’t listen me or what I need! You keep pushing aside my own needs for yours even though I keep telling you what I need!”
Because these are “you” statements, you probably feel as if they are attacking you. You probably feel the need to run or stand and fight (this is the fight or flight response triggered by stress).
Take a deep breath and tell them, “So you feel that I don’t listen to you. Can you give me an example?”
It may be hard to open yourself to criticism, but ultimately, your significant other will start to feel listened to.
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5. Ask open-ended questions
In the example above, after you repeated back your significant other’s words “You feel that I don’t listen to you“, then you asked a question: “Can you give me an example?”
This may take the other person by surprise and put them off the offensive. They may still be angry. Either is okay. Remember, you’re bridging the gap between your expectations and their feelings.
But more often than not, people are less than willing to volunteer their true thoughts and feelings about something they are struggling with, especially when they feel they’re not being listened to.
Asking open-ended questions (not yes or no) can let them know that you are truly reaching out to them and willing to listen.
6. Accept the other person’s feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel that way
Emotions are meant to be felt. It is perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, frustrated, depressed, discouraged, overwhelmed, stressed, guilty, or any other number of emotions that we label as “negative”. It is not your responsibility to be happy all the time, nor is it someone else’s.
As the saying goes: FEEL sad if you’re sad, just don’t unpack and live there!
In Buddhism, love and understanding have the same meaning. So conveying understanding to those around you can not only validate them, but give them hope that they aren’t alone.
Meeting someone where they are is a difficult path to walk, whether it be with your students, citizens you are serving, social work cases, or just the people in our lives.
We’ve been taught so many things about the way life is that we don’t stop to question whether they are true. You CAN be supportive even if a person doesn’t want to do things your way. It IS okay to feel our feelings wholly.
Meeting someone where they are means accepting them for who they are and where they are in their life. Sometimes all a person needs is someone to hold their hand and walk with to them to a better place.