Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Unless it's a super-close friend, better wait before speaking up
Anonymous: I know you can't make other people change, or do the hard work for them, but what role can a friend/sibling/in-law play when someone has a problem?
I want to help a friend who has trouble saying no (kid gets bad grades, still allowed to go to a sleepover when that was part of the bargain of getting good grades, for example). But I don't know how to start. Thanks.
Carolyn: The ability to affect the behavior of those around us ranges from abundant-but-limited to nil. In fact, the ability to affect our own behavior comes with limits, but that's the closest we get to complete control: over our own thoughts, words, actions. The moment the behavior you want to change is someone else's, you lose the last word.
If that person is really, really close to you though, you probably have a lot of influence.
In those cases, it's important to use that influence judiciously. That can mean anything from being an honest player in all your dealings with that person — for example, asking openly for things instead of manipulating people to do what you want — to picking your battles carefully to avoid intruding on others' lives for trivial reasons.
So, in regard to your friend: If you are close to this person, if you have a history of using your power/influence judiciously, and if you use it judiciously here, then you can be a tremendous help.
Depending on the dynamic you have with this friend, you can either ask directly what happened to the deal she struck with her child, or you can ask indirectly — for example, ask how things are going between her and her child. Direct or indirect, the question must not be judgmental.
Then, in her answer, you can read whether there's an invitation for you to help or not. With an invitation, speak your mind — again, without judging. If there's no invitation, then you help by listening (with the occasional, judicious question) and you help by example, and that's about it.
Once you move out into the rings of people who aren't really close to you — say, they're related to you but you don't confide in each other, you're friends but not in regular touch, you're colleagues but not close outside the office, whatever — then your ability to influence/help someone else weakens.
Unless you're asked. The primary factor in power we have with each other is the invitation to comment/help. When we're asked, we can help no matter how close or distant we are. Sometimes, in fact, a little distance can help.
But since such clear invitations to help — paired with openness to being helped — are so rare and so relatively tension-free, presumably we're talking about how to help people close to us who are struggling, but haven't asked.
That's the tough one to navigate, because you can't mistake emotional proximity for permission to keep weighing in. At a certain point, the constant effort to give your opinion, and presumably to change others' behavior, becomes judgmental unto itself.