It is widely considered to be a hallmark of leadership. It is a goal in business, an expectation in social work and psychology – and an intention in ministry: meet people where they are. Meet them where they are emotionally, where they are in terms of their background, knowledge and culture – and proceed from there. Skills are taught – in business and medical schools, in seminaries and in job trainings – to be effective listeners, to show honest empathy, and to offer recognition of where the other person is and to support them in that place.
And yet a full menu of skills is not going to be of much use if a leader, listener or empathizer doesn’t want the other person to be where they are, which is a growing phenomenon in in our heightened polarized world. If I don’t hear it within myself, I often read it or hear it from others: “How can they believe that? How can they say that?” The resistance to accepting where the other person is undermines the intention to meet someone where they are. “I’m here to be with you, but I don’t think you should think what you think”, does not generate trust. Rather, it sows division. And that approach/disdain attitude pervades far too many relationships today.
Decades ago, while serving as a hospital chaplain, I had a long conversation with a man dying of cancer. He realized he was dying; he was open in talking about what it felt like and – to the extent it was possible, he was accepting of his fate. The conversation filled me with gratitude to have been invited in to such an intimate conversation, and I felt no small measure of pride in my ability to listen, to guide and to care.
A few days later I went to see the man again. He didn’t seem to remember our earlier encounter. He was visibly and verbally angry. He insisted that he could get better if only the doctors and hospital staff knew what they were doing.
I was indignant. Two days earlier he had arrived at acceptance, which is the final and desired stage in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. (On Death and Dying, 1969) But on this particular day he had regressed (yes, that is how I felt) to stages one and two – denial and anger. He wasn’t supposed to do that, my twenty-five-year-old mind told me. I went into his hospital room thinking that he was ready for death, and that I would gently guide him on that journey. But now he had moved. Backward. I told myself – and probably in a non-verbal way communicated to him, that he wasn’t supposed to be where he was. That there was a prescribed way to die – and for a while he had followed the protocol, but now it seemed that he had failed. And so had I. My arrogance – and that is what it was, and which was shared by other hospital staff, no doubt made his dying more painful.
Meeting people where they are means accepting where they are. Which can be hard to do when we have embraced a baked-in paradigm of thinking or an expected trajectory of behavior. This gets harder still when we live in a culture where there are no end of voices and forces vilifying people who stand, think or live out their lives from a place where the vilifiers don’t think they should be.
There is always a space of convergence. It may not be much, but in faith I can say it can always be found. It is the mandorla, an Italian word for almond. It is the shape that is created when two circles intersect (think Venn Diagram from 6th grade math). The two circles can represent opposing viewpoints or religious traditions or political parties or any other polarity. The circles will never be completely separate, nor will they ever completely overlap. The mandorla does not represent compromise or concession from one side or the other. Rather, it is the space of commonality. It requires a level of vulnerability to enter the mandorla – and a willingness to find common ground. The mandorla is a place where we can meet someone where they are – because it is also a space where we can claim as well.