A Two-Step Guide to Meeting People Where They’re At

Posted on: February 24, 2021Pittsburgh

Throughout the interview process for National Health Corps, as I spoke with program staff of various operating sites, one phrase kept coming up again and again: meeting people where they’re at.

I learned throughout these interviews that being able to “meet people where they’re at” is a prerequisite to fulfilling NHC’s mission of reducing health disparities and fostering healthy communities in underserved populations. Although I had a vague idea what this phrase meant, it wasn’t until I settled into my position as Community Outreach Coordinator at UPMC Mercy’s Internal Medicine Recovery Engagement Program (IM-REP) that I truly began to understand what it means to meet someone where they’re at.

I serve individuals with opioid use disorder (OUD). Patients engage in our treatment center because they want to live independently of substances and recover parts of their life they’ve lost due to their substance use disorder. To help patients achieve this, we offer comprehensive care consisting of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), primary care, behavioral health counseling, peer support, and community-based guidance. 

We also screen for barriers, known as the social determinants of health, patients may face that impede their ability to seek out treatment and live a healthy life. OUD has left many of our patients displaced, without transportation, permanent shelter, or adequate nutrition. As Community Outreach Coordinator, I address these social determinants of health by connecting our patients to community resources such as housing, food, employment, education, and transportation. 

Learning about Harm Reduction during NHC training was my first introduction to meeting our patients where they’re at. While we may not necessarily be able to prevent someone from using a substance, or engaging in something that may have negative consequences on their health or life, we can reduce the harm that comes with those activities1

Early on in my host site training, I shadowed one of our therapists and experienced Harm Reduction in our clinic first hand. A patient came into our clinic and admitted they had just taken a benzodiazepine recreationally. Instead of making them feel ashamed, the therapist validated that they had shown up for their appointment, arrived on time, and were continuing to follow through with their MAT and counseling. The patient and therapist were able to continue building rapport and reinforcing the patient’s strengths to work towards recovery. 

Meeting someone where they’re at, just like Harm Reduction, first means understanding where someone is emotionally, mentally, and physically. What are they going through in life right now? What are their barriers? What are their goals? What are their strengths, and what things do they want to strengthen? How can you, or someone else in their life, help them get to where they want to be? Meeting someone where they’re at means honoring and respecting where they’re currently at in their life journey, not where you want them to be.

Keeping Harm Reduction in mind, there are two steps to meeting someone where they’re at: practicing empathy, and meeting yourself where you’re at. Think of these steps not as one coming before the other, but rather working together in a continuous cycle. 

Practicing Empathy

I would be willing to bet a quality cup of coffee that the most watched YouTube video amongst National Health Corps members is “Brené Brown on Empathy.” There is a reason for this: understanding and practicing empathy, that is, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to really understand the emotion and complexity of what they’re going through, is an essential skill for NHC members. 

Brené Brown begins with differentiating empathy and sympathy. “Empathy,” she states, “fuels connection2, whereas sympathy drives disconnection.” Empathy enables us to connect with our patients and build a relationship to help them heal and grow. Practicing empathy means we are truly listening to our patients, and when we listen to them and understand where they’re at, we are able to provide individuals with services and education that will help them.

Brené Brown builds off her thesis by referencing Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy: 

1. Perspective taking: recognizing someone’s perspective as their own, and their truth

2. Being nonjudgmental

3. Recognizing emotion in other people 

4. Communicating that you recognize the emotion in other people

Meeting people where they’re at means continuously practicing the above four qualities of empathy. These qualities enable us to be better health care providers, friends, and family members.

Yet there is one thing that must always accompany practicing empathy.

Meeting Yourself Where You’re At 

I quickly learned from my service that practicing empathy is unsustainable without taking care of yourself and acknowledging where you’re at emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Many of our patients have experienced trauma, and as I serve and connect them to community resources, I listen to stories of their trauma: living in prison for thirty years; losing friends and family members to gun violence; surviving abusive partners and sexual assault. I listen with empathy as they open up to me, trust me, and show me the power of human resilience.

I cannot continue to empathize and be 100% for my patients unless I’m meeting myself where I’m at. For me, this means practicing self-awareness to know when I need a break. What does my body feel like when I’m starting to feel burnt out? I’ve learned that taking a walk around lunch time is a great way for me to recenter myself. 

Thus, I challenge you. Prioritize brief check-ins throughout the day to ask yourself: What can I do right now to restore my emotional, mental, and physical energy? Reflecting on these questions and taking time for yourself only ends up benefitting our community and our patients in the long run. 

Health care is not the only setting in which we must meet people where they’re at. Whether it’s our professional work, extracurricular service, or friendships, we must empathize. Listening to others, serving others, and taking care of ourselves is the foundation to creating healthy communities. 

1Harm Reduction is exemplified by our partner organizations Prevention Point Pittsburgh and the Condom Distribution Program. Prevention Point Pittsburgh supplies Narcan, sterile syringes, and other supplies to prevent infections and fatal overdoses. The Condom Distribution Program through the Allegheny County Health Department provides condoms and health education to prevent the spread of HIV and STDs.

2The thesis of Johann Hari’s Ted Talk “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” is that the opposite of addiction is connection. I highly recommend watching.

About the Author:

Bethany Garrison

Why did you join AmeriCorps/National Health Corps?​

I joined the National Health Corps because it fit perfectly with my passion for service and desire to gain hands-on public health experience. I knew NHC would provide a unique opportunity for me to spend a year of direct service in a clinical setting, and I look forward to learning from both patients and providers on where our healthcare system is falling short, and how I can use that knowledge to make a meaningful difference in my community.

Host Site

UPMC Mercy Hospital
Mercy Health Center
Second floor, Suite 233
1515 Locust St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
UPMC Mercy Hospital
Mercy Health Center
Second floor, Suite 233
1515 Locust St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15219