Google the phrase “Meet people where they are” and over 12 billion results show up. Many of the articles are by leadership coaches, psychologists, therapists, educators, social activists, and other change agents.
The first couple of articles I clicked on offered well-articulated reasons why meeting people where they are is the key to establishing healthy relationships and effecting positive change.
But how does this advice hold up for entrepreneurs?
What do we really mean when we say, “Meet people where they are”?
How do you apply this maxim in your business? How does it inform your relationships with yourself, your own leadership and sovereignty, your team, your clients and customers? How does it inform your business model, brand strategy, marketing, hiring practices? How does it shape the culture of your business?
Truth is, despite our best intentions, we rarely meet people where they are. To start with, none of us are singular selves. Within us we contain multitudes. The self I am this afternoon is not the same self I was yesterday afternoon. The self who’s writing this post is not the self who went for a walk in my neighborhood this morning. We cannot flatten our multidimensional selves into a unidimensional identity, any more than we can make the ocean cease its ebb and flow by demanding it be still.
Secondly, our selves are not just personal but also social and cultural constructs. To a greater or lesser extent, we are the products of multiple layers of systemic conditioning – ancestral, familial, educational, political, social, linguistic, cultural… We are the sum of our history, our integrated and undigested experiences, our radiant consciousness and grope-in-the-dark heedlessness – and so, so much more.
To meet someone where they are is to meet an ecosystem of personhood that is rarely cohesive and never singular.
To add to the complexities of defining a “self”, we are relational beings. The self I am with you is not the self I am with my son or my best friend or my massage therapist. Not because I’m putting on a social facade when I’m with you – I’m not — but because, as relational beings, we elicit different aspects of each other at different times and in different relational contexts.
Since neither you nor your client, customer, COO, or supplier are immutable selves, your relationship with any one of them is both a product of your history together, and a snapshot of this interaction, this moment in time, shaped by a multitude of variables including your perceptions of them and theirs of you, in this particular context. Your relationship is mediated by the degree of self-awareness each of you has developed, by the quality of your multiple intelligences, the depth and clarity of your communication, and the trust you’ve built between you, among other things.
Meeting someone where they are is more akin to the meeting of galaxies than meeting your neighbour across the back fence.
Once we truly understand this, we can enter the mystery of personhood – our own, and each other’s – with a curious mind and receptive heart.
Last week, I had a long conversation with an old friend whom I haven’t connected with in a while, though there is a history of love and care between us. The longer we spoke, the more I could feel my friend’s assumptions about me exerting a shaping force on my energy field.
In the face of these assumptions, which were unspoken but nonetheless potent, some of my inner selves receded, temporarily, deep into my interior. Others, who have long since relinquished the burden of imposed identities, gasped for breath as they squeezed into skins not their own, bewildered and blinking, for the duration of our conversation.
It took me a while, after, to release my friend’s energetic projections and my own responses to them. It took more than a minute for me to retrieve my own assumptions and projections, to reorient my inner selves to their familial bonds, their lovingly woven interrelationships and to restore my sense of well-being and wholeness.
Which selves were involved in our conversation — my friend’s, my own? Who were we meeting, and how?
We can only meet others where they are to the extent that we are able to meet ourselves where we are. And meeting all of our inner selves is a life-long, daily practice in nurturing inner relationships.
When you’re meeting with your client, or team member, or that student in your online classroom who demands answers to questions that are clearly forms of refusal, notice which of their inner selves is at the forefront. Notice which of your own inner selves responds to them.
If you meet their inner 5-year-old — or their critical, judgemental teen, or their anxious or traumatized or puffed-up self — “where they are,” and they haven’t yet developed their own capacity to understand which of their inner selves is running their show in that moment, how effective do you suppose your meeting will be?
Sure, you can meet them from your wholeness, but if their center has been hijacked by their reckless, impulsive self, or their everything-is-impossible self, or some other part of them, and you are holding the field for them to make the shift into their wholeness so you can accomplish what you came together to accomplish, you will expend a lot of time and energy doing something that isn’t yours to do. You will get less creative work done, and may feel drained by the encounter rather than energized by it.
Unless you’re their therapist, and they’ve hired you specifically to assist them with this developmental work, this isn’t your task to undertake.
In fact, if you take on this role regularly, you may find yourself burned out, resentful, avoiding your business, and ultimately, feeling frustrated, stuck and ineffective. If so, this is your cue to step back and ask yourself if this is the kind of work you still feel called to do, or if you need to rethink who you work with and how.
If you wait too long to have these honest conversations with yourself, you’ll squander your energy, your genius, and your joy without ever serving the wholeness within your clients and customers in the way that is uniquely yours.
You don’t serve people by infantilizing them or by meeting parts of them without placing these in the context of their wholeness. You serve them by establishing a clearer, stronger energy field in which you address the whole of who they are, not just the part that happens to be dominant in that moment. You do this with all the discernment, vulnerability, wisdom and authentic presence you can muster.
In the process, you invite them to bring more of their own presence into the encounter between you. You inhabit an energetic field in which they can, if they are open to it, experience a range of powers and potentials of their soul that may be currently nascent, dormant or invisible to them.
It takes courage, trust, vulnerability, faith in their souls and yours, to risk meeting all of them with all of you. That risk-taking then invokes unseen allies who lend their presence and power to the evolution taking place in the relational field between you.
In this field, you extend yourself to meet the other person in all their complexity and wholeness, and they extend themselves to meet you in yours.
That extension, that movement to meet midway between your ecology and theirs, your consciousness and theirs, is the catalyst for mutual transformation, mutual emergence. Each of you grows more fully into your wholeness as a result of your encounter. Each of you incarnates more of your soul’s potentials; and in the grace of the field between you, something miraculous emerges.
To put this into the context of your business: If you are serving people primarily by meeting them where they are because this is your calling, your mission, then shape your business model so that you offer your community that which will truly serve them. How you craft your products and programs, how you market and sell your offers, how you deliver your content – all of this will be informed by your commitment to meeting people where they are. Just understand that “where they are” is an evolving ecosystem, not a fixed state of being, and craft your offers accordingly.
If, on the other hand, your calling is to serve people who have done, or are willing to do, the work of meeting themselves where they are so they can work with you as co-creative partners in mutually collaborative, generative relationships – then your business model, and everything that flows from it, must reflect that calling, clearly and intentionally.
When you’re in business long enough, you will move through various phases of whom you feel called to work with, what you offer and how you offer it. These phases are not linear, and will parallel your own evolution, and what your soul and the soul of your business is calling you to explore and embody next.
For example, at a certain point in your business’s life, you might offer a suite of products and services that serves people at different stages of their evolutionary journey. You might create tiered and sequenced programs, in which the foundational programs offer a more linear structure and facilitated support for iterative learning and the later ones in the sequence are more intimate, loosely structured, and designed for self-paced growth.
If your own calling has changed so that you no longer wish to facilitate such programs yourself, you can train and hire facilitators to support the folks who will benefit from being met where they are and nurtured through the practice of meeting themselves where they are so they can show up fully in their lives.
By the time those participants have arrived at a place in your sequence of offers where they are ready for more, they will have developed the capacity to more fully inhabit that energetic field in which you and they can co-create a range of miracles together.
Ultimately, there isn’t a moral hierarchy that places “meeting people where they are” either above or below other ways of being in relationship. Just be honest with yourself about what your own genius and desire is calling you towards, and honor what you know about your evolving self.
Shape your business model, your products and services, your offers and how you market them, and your business culture to meet people in the way that supports the evolving desires of your soul, your genius and your personhood.
By doing this, you will create a business that continues to nourish you and all you love over your entire entrepreneurial lifetime. It will also nurture your community and the evolution of everyone involved in the world of your business, bringing clarity, grace, joy. And, yes, you’ll experience the incomparable delight of creative collaborations and the generative miracles that flow from them.