On Helping Loved Ones

I think most of us have experienced the ease of advising a work colleague or acquaintance and the difficulty of helping a close friend or family member. What a strange paradox. Parents: “I tell my child to do something, and they choose to do the exact opposite. I don’t get it.” Close friends: “I tell X that she should break up with Y, but she just won’t listen. It’s like talking to a wall.” These conversations can feel defeating to us, an indictment on our worthiness as a friend and confidant. And the truth that we cannot control what others do eludes us when it comes to those that we love the most. Easy it is to accept the poor choices of a work colleague, but difficult to accept a sibling with different beliefs from your own. With those we don’t love deeply, influence appears easy. Advice can be honest, accepted, acted upon. Truth may be effective.

With loved ones, there’s more going on. Your loved ones and you are engaged in a relationship that supersedes individual actions and choices if that bond is unconditional.

So, the game we must play is not about being right but about being effective. And being effective requires embodying exactly where they are without judgment, and presenting the thing they need in the moment. This does not guarantee the results we want by any means. This just means that the outcome we hope for is slightly more likely to happen. And from there, we live with the results.

Your advice to a friend that exercise will help their mental state may be correct. You may have science, psychology, and personal experience on your side. But depending on where they are, it may not be effective, or worse, may make matters worse in the long run. If they are unprepared, try, and fail, they may never try it again and feel worse for disappointing you. Influence is a flowing act. We may agree upon universal tenants, like “be kind, respect yourself, treat them how you’d like to be treated,” but the packaging needs to be tailor made.

I listened to an interview with actor and singer Jaime Foxx recently, where you talked about his foundational relationship with his grandmother. He talked about how she saw her role as the bow, and him as the arrow. Influence of loved ones is an elegant dance of aiming without control. We can aim our loved ones in a certain direction, but try too hard, and we miss the mark completely or become disappointed with the inevitable difference of where they land. All you can do is pull back, let go, and hope they are closer to the target than where they started.

Yesterday, I saw the expansive, epochal film, “The River Runs Through It,” about a professor who reflects upon his upbringing in Montana with his preacher father, devoted mother, and larger-than-life brother. At the end of the movie, his father closes with a moving sermon on an approach to loved ones. The paradoxical bind we feel of being so close, yet so far.

“Each one of here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

Reverend John Norman Maclean, “The River Runs Through It”

Be with your loved ones. Absorb their point of view. And when you speak, pull back, let go, and stay with them lovingly.

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