This is about how I fix my lawn mower when it doesn’t start, and why the same approach is ill-advised when attempting to fix my friends and family.

First the lawn mower. When mine doesn’t start (a 40% occurrence rate), I tinker around to find the cause. Based on my mechanical knowledge, I figure it’s out of gas, has a clogged air filter, needs more (or cleaner) motor oil or needs a new spark plug. Once I figure out which of these is the problem, I go in and try to fix it. Often, I’m successful.

None of the people I know looks like a lawn mower, except, perhaps, my late great Uncle Dexter. And yet, when I determine individuals in my circle are not functioning at “full capacity” (meaning at my perceived expectation of performance), I jump in to check them out just like I do my lawn mower. I begin to investigate what deficiency they may have and how I can fix them up to run smoothly again.

Deep down, I know better. After 25 years of working in the field of behavior change, I know this approach is folly. Many times the friends I wish to fix are doing just fine without my meddling. And when a change is in their best interest, they are the ones that possess the strengths and resources to adjust in a manner that suits their timing and personal aspirations. Even now, I need to remind myself that I’m not the expert in their lives. They are. Oddly, when I get really flustered at a friend’s behavior, further introspection reveals I am actually dissatisfied with my own feelings or actions. Imagine that!

This doesn’t mean I cannot help. I can point out people’s strengths and assets. I can let them know I am in their corner, that I care about them and I have confidence in them. I can listen. I can empathize. I can try to understand without being judgmental. Some people I can hug.

Back to my lawn mower. This human, patient approach rarely works in getting it started. Unless, of course, the engine’s flooded, in which case I just have to stand around and wait.