Meet Them Where They’re At: How to Foster Connection, Understanding and Social Change

Meet Them Where They’re At: How to Foster Connection, Understanding and Social Change

Nicholas G. Lattanzio, Psy.D.

As it currently stands, we are somewhere (hopefully) in the backend of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet new variants continue to emerge and outbreaks sporadically pop up and keep us in a perpetual slow dance with the virus. There is a war in Ukraine, a war resembling the barbaric tyranny of the likes of Napolean Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, The Holy Roman Empire, Adolph Hitler, and other authoritarian regimes that throughout history rocked the world – the difference being that modern Western civilization has not seen this level of ground invasion since probably World War II; we believed we were past that kind of fighting now that we were “more evolved.” In the United States, gun violence and school shootings continue to desensitize our youth and leave most of us shaking our fists at some unseen force we believe to be the source of such horror.

What many refer to as the metacrisis – the experience of multiple severe global crises at once – is not the problem at hand in the world.  The problem is not the pandemic, it is not war, and it is not – I begrudgingly insist – guns or politics. If we define the problem as the reality we are facing, then we are effectively saying that that reality is wrong. If examined from an alternative perspective, we might not blame the actual coronavirus for spreading and killing, bombs for detonating, guns for firing, etc. They are doing what they are designed to do, their job so to speak. Some do not blame these various means for the crisis, but rather shift that blame to other people. How dare Putin invade Ukraine and how dare NATO not stand up due to fear of nuclear retaliation? How dare any research lab expose a virus to the general public. How dare politicians not pass gun laws or try to take our guns away. They must be to blame for acting immorally, unethically, wrong.

But how do we decide what is wrong and right? Is it the same distinction as true and false? Anyone reading this will surely have some personal point of reference for how difficult it has become to discern what is real and true information with the tornado of conflicting yet convincing “truths” espoused in social media posts and mainstream media hype, and by ‘Youtube experts’ and ‘Google search doctors,’ even our own government. As a result, we see more conflict between each other on a daily basis purely over our ideas of what is right, not on what is actually happening, more than we have ever before.

This too is not necessarily the root of the problem, though the way we interact with each other can often maintain conflicts rather than resolve them (a key point to remember). The problem lies somewhere in the realm of information literacy, being able to read something like an article and assess its validity based on the structure and evidence of its arguments, not the compelling language that plays on our biases. As a species, we are very bad at doing that and we do not recognize it the majority of the time. Many of us become enraged at some state of affairs and are ready to go to war with anyone who would oppose us. However, the logic behind our enragement is typically directed at the means of the problem (e.g., guns, bombs, a virus) or is projected onto some person or group of people we take to be the “other” (e.g., gun owners, tyrants, politicians). We are in a position where, backs against the wall, we cling to our beliefs and projections and subconsciously declare “it must be anybody except me.”

The aim of this essay is to show how we construct our beliefs about the world; how we hold those beliefs in the world; the error of our ways in how we make great, emotionally-driven efforts to assert those beliefs to, and hopelessly impose them on others; and how we can fix this, not by changing the beliefs of the “other”, but rather by cultivating an understanding of the “other” by “meeting them where they are at”. This can be done through Lovingkindness Intentions and Compassionate Empathic Engagement. This process of opening ourselves up to another person opens a liminal space in which common ground can be co-created.

How We Construct Our Beliefs

There is an old story about two people driving through a town. The driver notices the check engine light come on, so they spent their trip through the town looking for mechanics. The passenger noticed their stomach rumbling, and so spent their trip through the town looking for restaurants. By the time they had passed through the town, they had both traveled through the exact same place at the exact same time yet had very different experiences of it, particularly in terms of what was important. They could have bickered about what was more important and why, we need the car working to get to our destination or we need to eat to keep our energy up or sustain ourselves, and indeed that is what most of us do when confronted with an opposing view on priorities.

Notice, though, that what was important to each individual was based on their needs as they emerged through their experience of the town. Not only that, but also their pre-existing beliefs, undoubtedly influenced heavily by culture, politics, religion, etc., in a very complex system that helps them to make sense of the problem or need in a situation as well as the tools and way of thinking about things they have to make sense of and meet those needs. If no restaurants or mechanics were to be found, that could represent a structural problem in the local economy of small towns to someone perhaps more conservative. It could also represent an apparent cultural deficit of the town governing bodies, which could be very triggering for someone active in the DEI movement. Or, it could represent just about anything. What is important to take away here is that we respond to our felt needs with the tools and knowledge that we have, which differs greatly between any two people and thus their ability to be effective at problem solving when there is disagreement about what the problem even is.

Arguing about the causes of the absence of restaurants would not help the couple move toward the goal of fixing their car or feeding themselves. To blame each other for having the wrong priorities might end in someone being stranded on the side of the road. In this situation, it would be advantageous for each of the vehicle’s occupants to discuss their reasoning and understand why they felt the way they did, and then for each to listen carefully and seek to appreciate and respect each other’s felt needs. Otherwise you really do not even know what the argument or debate is really about.

We can take that example of “driving through town” as analogous to “driving through life itself’. In so doing, we can see just how complex and muddled our views about what is important are. Imagine that you are disagreeing with someone about politics, religion or some other important topic. Ask yourself, is the opinion of the other based on some idea of the how the world ought to be?  If so, is it right to try and change their mind? And are they even necessarily wrong? Are you right? Would your assertion that getting the car serviced was more important than your passenger’s hunger actually solve anything?

How We Hold Our Beliefs: The Is-Ought Fallacy

This story shows illustrates the operation of the Is-Ought Fallacy: we experience the world the way we are more than the way it is.  As a result, we react with resistance towards reality as it is because it is not, according to our experience, the way it ought to be[1]. Our brains are programmed to model our reality to prioritize our needs as a way of self-preservation and reducing the risk of harm. In other words, if it ought not be there, better attack or avoid it.  At its evolutionary roots, it is about survival. The example provided above shows that regardless of whether our oughts are right or wrong, when reality does not correspond to them, we react defensively, and sometimes with hostility. We try to impose our expectations onto reality by insisting that reality just change.  We believe that it is wrong the way it is, and willfully reject alternative perspectives.

We tend to do all of this without an understanding of why reality is the way it is in the first place. Our brains do this for a reason too. The brain is all about predictive power and efficient information processing. It wants to use the least effort possible while taking the most information into account to  make a decision. Of course, this filters out most variables, particularly those that we just plain disagree with. As a result, we tend to take things personally, automatically asserting our personal ways of making sense of the world instead of flexibly embracing reality as it is. If we can learn to acknowledge and detach from our own agenda and accept reality as it is, regardless our agreement with it, then we can take steps to address what we want to change about it. A surgeon who remains adamant that the heart they are removing is actually a liver will not ever be able to remove that “liver”. You must first accurately recognize what something is if you are going to be able to change it; it takes conscious effort to train yourself (and your brain) to do that.

Maintaining Moral Standards without Moralizing

In order to avoid confusion or misinterpretation, it may be helpful to understand my position on morality. A common misunderstanding is that with an emphasis focused on first understanding a person committing something we consider to be immoral before judging them on it may appear to suggest that I am advocating for amorality, that is, not to have morals in the first place. There is also a common fear that such a method would do away with all current moral standards. However, this is simply not possible: we all have morals. We all make moral judgements. We have always done so and always will. That is part of what it is to be a human being. My point is simply that when we see someone acting in ways that we view as immoral, we are unlikely to effect change in those persons by moralizing or shaming the other.  As difficult as it may be to do, to influence someone whose actions we regard as immoral, it is often helpful to put aside our moral judgments so that we can understand how the other makes sense of their actions in terms of their own. Accepting that their actions are immoral and are for whatever reason being allowed to take place (by God, the universe, reality, what have you) doesn’t mean agreeing with the morals of the other; it merely means putting aside our own judgments long enough to understand the values and life experiences that inform the other person’s actions.

If we want to increase moral action in the world, we must be willing to accept that even if the other’s actions do not make sense to us, they may in fact make sense to them.  When we do this, we must acknowledge the other’s sensibility – however immoral or amoral we view it — without agreeing with it. When encountering morally repugnant behavior in others (e.g., pedophilia), people sometimes say, “That person is beyond the pale; I don’t want to understand why he did that.” In such circumstances, the mere attempt to understand the other feels like condoning the other’ behavior.  The attempt to understand the other may even be experienced as a kind of pollution – “If I try to make contact with the other, I may be affected, stained or contaminated.”

When we fail to seek understanding of behavior that we find morally indefensible, we force ourselves to act in a fear-based, controlling, invalidating, and in fact immoral manner. We have robbed the other person of the chance to improve their moral stance; we have also robbed ourselves of the chance of understanding something about the other’s immoral actions that could serve useful in preventing them in the future. True morality comes from a balance of morally just action and temperamental patience and compassion. There is no path to peace, peace is the path.

Meeting Someone Where They Are At

A basic principle of human development – one that cuts across education, parenting, psychotherapy, and all other forms of human intervention – is that in order to foster development in another person, one must engage that person at their own level of knowledge, skill and development. Imagine trying to scoldingly lecture a 5-year-old on being an immoral sinner for taking a piece of candy from the grocery store. They will not understand such a statement beyond the general idea that they are bad. They may steal less because of it, but this will be the result of fear and shame and not genuine developmental progress. It would be far more effective to reach them via their developmental level. For a 5-year-old, this is probably through a story, one with themes of impulse control, delayed-gratification, being accountable for one’s actions and facing consequences with grace, the importance of earning what you have rather than taking it from others, and so forth. This can give 5-year-olds an understanding of behavioral monitoring and modification, emotion regulation, and value-based living without shaming, scolding, or using technical language (keep this in mind for later). While all situations are obviously not so straightforward, the guiding principle is: meet them where they are at. If you try and reach them where they are not, well, they will not be there.

The above situation has to do with a child, but what about adults, elders, authority figures? As I suggest throughout this essay: just try to understand them. This does not require some analysis of their conscious level of functioning, it merely requires the humility to approach, ask, and genuinely listen. I provide more specific skillset for goal at the end of this essay.

Once you understand as best you can the way they are seeing the situation, then you can come to them offering alternative perspectives. These might best be proposed as questions to allow people to elaborate their ideas, to feel heard and validated, while simultaneously tailoring questions to issues that the other may not yet have considered. One might ask, for example, “What if there was a way to teach him not to take what isn’t his without having to get yourself so worked up or yell at him?” Or, in a political context, How did you come to have this political stance?” “You seem pretty aware of how President X’s policies are going to negatively affect the economy? What do you think about how they’ll effect the healthcare and education systems? What about foreign affairs?” In asking these kinds of questions, the individual comes to feel both heard and understood.  But you will have also created space for an open encounter by approaching the other with authenticity and sincerity.  They (and you) are now forced to articulate their perspective in ways they have not had to before.

Remember your goal is not to change their minds – you cannot do that. Instead, they will change their minds if they see things differently. The best way to make this happen is to provide a safe space for them to at least consider an alternate view and assimilate it into their overarching worldview. It may not sound like much, but that is real change in the works.

Respect the Level the Other is At

As we develop in life, we have opportunities to gain increased awareness. The more aware we are of the complexity of a situation, the more we can embrace options for how to approach the situation effectively. If we are truly attempting to act in a more effective manner, then there is no reason to think any given individual wouldn’t also develop the capacity for more effective action through the process of sensitive engagement with others.

Here is an example of how we develop our ethical stances through our interactions with others. I am a clinical psychologist with expertise in mindfulness and self-inquiry. I am also seasoned meditator and am able to function with a reasonably high level of intelligence and skill. In other words, I may see myself as an enlightened someone who knows what I do and knows how to do it extremely well, even better than most.

We shall see if that is enough to promote change.

Not terribly long ago I began seeing a client, a 14-year-old boy who was totally numb, affectively flat, and cognitively dazed in a sort of stupor resembling someone slightly overmedicated on lithium. For the first month, with the boy unable to produce much speech or to identify any aspect of his lack of motivation. Our sessions were focused on teaching basic mindfulness skills to help build his attentional capacities. Nonetheless, trying to help him identify his feelings felt like pulling teeth.

Then, over a three-week period, the boy revealed that he had been smoking marijuana almost daily for nearly as long as he had been in treatment. He began to self-harm and seriously mutilated himself. He was utterly incapable of explaining why. Recognizing the need for a higher level of care, the boy begrudgingly went on to complete a day program for the next few months. After completing the program, he came back to see me. He informed me that he was now seeing a new therapist and was being forced to choose between me and the other therapist.

Having been through the trenches of his misery and pushing him every step of the way, I well understood why he would choose the other therapist. Receiving feedback on my performance, he revealed some useful things.  He told me that he did not believe he was ready to change when he first began treatment with me. What stuck with me most was his assertion that I had made him think about things too hard. That hit me like a ton of bricks: in my overconfidence in my expertise on mindfulness I recklessly assumed he would understand what I was saying on a semi-technical level. However, he clearly had not understood as much he had indicated during our sessions. As a result, he could not implement it outside of session.

I did not meet him where he was. This both delayed his progress and cost me a client I generally enjoyed working with. I assumed he ought to understand what I was telling him. Attributing his lack of progress to his symptomatology, I was blind to the is of the reality that he simply was not getting enough of the skills to use them. Had I introduced the mindfulness skills more concrete, they may well have been enough to keep him on track. In the end, it worked out in the best for him. I am happy he is now able to engage with a therapist probably better suited for him, and I am now more aware of not repeating my oversight.  My desire to see myself as “an expert” who was “right” was infuriatingly useless because I was not meeting my client where he was. The problem was not so much with the content of the therapy, it was about the manner in which the content was expressed.

Lovingkindness and Compassionate Engagement

What does all this tell us?  It suggests that the manner in which we engage each other is important.  Instead of seeing the other through the eyes of our oughts, it is important to meet people where they are with Lovingkindness and Compassionate Engagement. Lovingkindness consists of the intention to act in ways that promote the wellbeing of oneself, others, the world, the universe, etc. Compassionate Engagement means acting toward others with empathy in order for others to be free of their suffering.

Acting with Lovingkindness and Compassionate Engagement means intentionally (deliberately, consciously, ‘on purpose’) wishing wellbeing towards the very individual with whom you disagree (yes that includes, depending on your perspective, Donald Trump and Joe Biden and their supporters). Your next step is to empathically engage them in ways that allow them to share their needs and feelings, and which allow you to create a felt understanding of their life needs, motives, and experiences.  The result is that the other will feel more understood by you – someone who they perceive to be immoral or wrong. You must then access and demonstrate compassion to humbly recognize the complexity of the entire situation. Instead of trying to change each other, compassion and lovingkindness will allow you to build a more mutual understanding of each other.

Such a process is transformational, and if done sincerely, reduces the conflict and tension that prevent us from seeing things clearly enough to advance our own ethical suchness. Before this can be done, however, we must ask ourselves: Can I meet myself where I currently am?”   

[1] This is not to be confused with the Naturalistic Fallacy, the inference of the way things ought to be from the otherwise accurate observation of what is that similarly leads to inflexibility.

Nicholas “Nik” G. Lattanzio, Psy.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois who specializes in a variety of issues including intrusive thoughts, psychosis, self-harm, anxiety disorders, dissociation, trauma disorders, and existential and spiritual issues. He also has expertise in clinical applications of mindfulness and meditation, is a seasoned-meditator, and is currently developing a clinical model based in his nondual metaphysics called Nondual Empiricism. Nik is also involved in teaching philosophy and meditation, along with providing spiritual consultations for a local nonprofit spiritual foundation. His writing interests go across a spectrum of topics from clinical psychology, mental health advocacy, metaphysics and philosophy, spirituality, and exploring the depths of human potential for both good and bad. Nik’s aspirations are to continue writing and teaching in as many ways as possible, furthering the development of his own descriptive metaphysics and related clinical model, and generally learning what it really means to be a human being in the universe; all of which are motivated by a drive for service to others, reducing conflict by increasing understanding, and assisting others in abating and transcending unnecessary suffering.

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