Imagine yourself sitting alone at McDonalds, and you see this kid across the room with a huge, festering, red, infected zit, right in the middle of his forehead. (I told you it was going to be gross.) It's obvious that this fellow lacks the skill, the knowledge and the motivation to deal with with hygienic catastrophe. It's clear that no one else in the room shares your concern or zeal. Resolutely, you determine to take matters into your own hands. So, armed with a spork and a wet nap, you lay hands on the unsuspecting youth, pin him to the floor, lance the abomination and scrub away creamy sludge until, at last, the offense has been fully reconciled.
… and then the police show up.
Of course, this scenario is utterly preposterous. There are some things in our civilized culture that you just wouldn't do. But, suppose, it's not a zit we're talking about. Suppose it's a habit, a vocabulary, a style, or a belief. Suppose you substitute your spork and your wetnap with your words and your air of superiority. All of a sudden, the scenario isn't so bizarre . In fact, it becomes embarrassingly familiar.
We justify our behavior because we are looking our for their best interest. Exposing the wrongs around us, taking matters into our own hands to address misconduct, we're just doing our part to help out, “speaking the truth in love.” And if they get mad or offended? Well, that's their problem. You were just doing what needed to be done.
There are three things that have to be in place if you really want to right a wrong in the life of some other person. Each is absolutely essential. And, while having them all in place will never guarantee success, failure to establish even one of them will almost certainly guarantee failure (along with hurt feelings and damaged relationships).
The first thing that you have to have is indisputable credibility in the matter you are addressing.
Let's go back to McDonalds for a minute. You can imagine that, as you are actively intervening on behalf of this kid, seven burly loggers having their morning coffee might be inclined to get involved. But, not understanding the situation, one of them clasps firmly onto the back of your shirt collar. What should you do? The first, and most natural response must be to establish credibility. “It's okay,” you shout, with one hand held out as a stop sign, “I'm a dermatologist!”
Failing to establish credibility has often had dire consequences for many people with great intentions. More than one paramedic has been cold-cocked while trying to check the pulse on the neck of a victim presumed to be unconscious. But, knowing what you are doing isn't the same as established credibility. What you need to have is a reputation, among others, that your message is meaningful, consistent, and accurate.
Establishing your credibility can happen in seconds, or, it could take years. For some, you just have to accept that you just aren't the right person for dealing with a particular person. There are some measurements you can use to determine where you are at.
- First, be credible... not just opinionated. And, if you don't really understand the difference between those two, then you can probably expect to be on the receiving end of some solid intervention from time to time.
- Ask permission. If your credibility is intact and you express concern about someone, that person is going to be interested in what you have to share.
- Test regularly. Once permission has been given access into the personal realm of another soul, you don't necessarily have the keys to the kingdom. Make sure, regularly, that you are not overstepping. You can do this by asking, “Does this make sense?” or “Are you okay with this?” Affirmation means proceed. Hesitance means back off and work to re-establish stronger credibility.
Motives are hard to assess, especially for ourselves. We seem to be as good at lying to ourselves as we are at lying to others. But, there are some tell-tale signs that your motives might be impure.
- If you have to deal with it now instead of waiting to think things through, then, most likely, you're not as interested in helping this person as you are in removing what makes you uncomfortable.
- If you find yourself defensive or angry with anything other than submission to your will, then you definitely have ulterior and selfish motives.
- If you are especially conscious of bystanders and find pleasure in the “stage” then you are absolutely and undeniably manipulating the situation for your own reasons.
Finally, you can only effectively exert influence to positively change someone if you choose to do so at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place.
If you had quietly handed this kid your business card, expressed an interest in helping him with his complexion at no cost, he very likely might have paid you a visit. But, any time you use a public setting (public mean anywhere there is another person who has eyes and/or ears) to set someone on a different course than what they are currently on, you can expect conflict. First, it's rude. (You clearly aren't acting in their own interest.) It's not well thought out. (You've blown your credibility.) And, thirdly, it's distracting. (Everyone is thinking, “I wonder what that other person is thinking,” and not thinking about what you are sharing at all.
It doesn't matter what subject we're talking about. Christian evangelism, substance abuse, interpersonal relationships, health, finance and politics all require these same conditions to met if you are going to effectively change someone else.
But, we've gotten out of the practice of establishing our credibility, assessing our motives, and waiting for the right opportunity. Instead, we rarely stray from the places we are comfortable, accepted and secure. And the world is all the worse for it.