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When is it really none of your business?

Meddling in other people's lives, whether it's your family, friends or colleagues is something many of us are probably tempted to do at one point or another. Dr. Dale Atkins offers advice on when it's appropriate to get involved.

You may or may not be someone who wants to — or feels you should — get involved in someone else's business. Some people want to get involved and others really don't. In fact, at times, becoming involved can cause a lot of resentment and it may push the person to make the wrong decision out of spite.

Before you doing anything, consider the relationship you have with this person. Is he or she family, a close friend, an acquaintance, colleague, someone whom you know from the community? Consider the personalities that are involved as well and that what may be helpful to one person could, indeed be painful or useless to someone else.

Then ask yourself three questions:

  • Ask yourself if you're getting involved for them or for yourself.
  • Ask yourself if the person is happy, even though what they are doing wouldn't make you happy.
  • Ask yourself if getting involved could put your relationship with that person at risk. If so, decide whether that's a risk you're willing to take.

There are plenty of examples in which that risk is appropriate. Interventions for drugs, alcohol, gambling are excellent examples. If your involvement will hurt the person you care about, think and re-think becoming involved. Most situations require a application of “zipped lip.”

As you re-examine your potential involvement and probably advice, assess if the disclosed pain is something you want to be forever associated with.

Most often, if you are going to comment about couple relationship issues, the warring couple makes peace and both shoot the messenger (that would be you).

When focusing on parents and adult children, realize that at some point these are adult children and discussion should be just that, discussion not pontification. The person getting involved (giving advice) needs to know when to stop. Expressing an opinion does not require that the other person take your advice. If you've made your point and you were heard, but the person is still doing what they were doing (and they aren't putting themselves or others in danger), move on. Hearing you doesn't mean they have to agree with you. If they are putting themselves or others in danger, then you may have to intervene, sometimes anonymously, as in the case of reporting child or spousal abuse.

Many people don't think clearly about what and how they say what they want to say. It is important to think about how you frame your comments. Be careful about not blurting out your comments in a fight.

Plan a time for private discussion. Try to express clear points based on your real observations and thoughts, not, in the case of your daughter's boyfriend, “I just don't like him.”

Of course you can get involved if whatever it is is life-threatening.

You need to know what people's hot buttons and abilities to hear are. Ideally, the point of getting into someone's business is to be constructive, not hurtful. With family members and anyone, for that matter, if the person can't hear or accept the information then no purpose is served. The odds are one might be more inclined to put one's two cents in, i.e., if someone is ill and you feel they could use your advice or information; you sense problems and want to offer an ear. All these kinds of things are fair, but need to be handled with the understanding that people's unspoken or spoken lines in the sand must be respected.

In dealing with colleagues, listen and be honest when asked, but don't offer gratuitous comments.

When you get into someone else's business you should not have any expectations of the other person's reactions. If you feel it is serious enough (danger, health, potential emotional hurt) then whatever the person's reaction is should be taken in stride. This is about them, not you. Before you get into someone else's business, you need to take a deep breath and think about why you are doing it. If you are truly concerned and there is real risk to the person, okay. If it's because you think you know best and must present your own opinion without any concept of limits, think again.

Ideally, we try to reach out to others when they ask; when we sense they are reaching out; when it is being thought of from the perspective of what they might need, not what would work for ourselves.

Think before you act: It is irresponsible to see that someone is in harm's way and refuse to do anything about it, but remember that gossip is malicious and immoral.

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