Letting someone down gently: the hippie business version
July 26, 2017 12:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I gently let someone know that while I appreciate them reaching out to me about their mountain of ideas, I am not able to take on the roles that they want - without making things worse? Especially in a way that someone with a hippie soul can understand.

I have a mini consulting business and I just had a session with an older man who wanted to talk to me about his concerns about the future. The long story short of it is that he has a zillion very ambitious ideas all geared towards creating jobs for youth and/or changing the world (all very Peace and Love and Goodwill hence the 'hippie' part of my question), but he's also had an extreme run of bad luck to the point of prior suicidality and current loss of will to live. His various projects are at differing stages of fruition: none I'd say even halfway through being developed, asides from the odd demo or two, but it's mostly been really really big dreams that even big established teams struggle to accomplish.

He wants to hire me as a more permanent advisor type to either oversee the projects or bring in other people to oversee the projects and advise him on how to move forward, and he's willing to compensate me (that part I don't doubt, he paid very promptly for this session). He sees me as some kind of light, perhaps his last hope in getting any of these moving forward.

Thing is, I don't think I'm the person to do it. It looks like much more work than I have the time and spoons for, especially given how ambitious yet underdeveloped a lot of them are. It is possible to come up with some kind of working plan, but that will take up a lot of work in and of itself. I'm wary of being caught up in something that'll take time away from my own projects or other projects I have committed to. And then there's the whole emotional labor part - my heart is already broken hearing him talk about how he barely eats so that he can save money and energy, or about how he's been so dejected from abuse that he can barely see any reason to live, about a breath or two after talking about his big dreams.

Thing is, I don't want to end up being the person that pushes him over the edge. Ideally I would refer him to someone who is much more equipped and able to do anywhere near the kind of work he's hoping, especially one that speaks his language better. (He's already seeing a therapist) But I don't know who that person would be and I'm not sure how fair it is for me to go "well he's your problem now". I would like to link him to some resources that would be helpful - basically some way that he wouldn't be left completely alone. His loneliness is obvious even though he doesn't admit it and I suspect he is scrambling for a last bit of hope.

At the same time this feels so out of my depth and I don't think I'm willing to take on the responsibility he hopes me to take on. I feel a little bit...evil? Not quite? Selfish maybe? But I can see how quickly something like this can spiral out of control and I don't know how capable or willing I am to corrall it.

Ideal situation: I get to connect him with resources and people that are much more willing and able. I don't know where to even begin with those resources though.

Fear: This would be another sign of someone abandoning him or letting him down and pushes him over the edge.

What do I do?

(I am very willing to have a formal session with some kind of business consultant over this so if you have referrals for people that could help please let me know.)
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He sounds like my dad. If so, these projects are not about the future, but about rescuing his soul, which they could never possibly do. If he's like my dad, then when the truth of this becomes clear, he will descend into bitterness and paranoia and other extremes. You can sign on and go down with the ship or you can step back and let it go down on its own, but it's certainly not in your power to rescue him. It would be kinder in the long run not to enable his delusions or protect him from reality. If he struggles to eat how can he pay you or possibly deliver on any of these projects that are meant to change the world?
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:50 AM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I specialize in this. PM me if you want.
posted by ananci at 1:00 AM on July 26, 2017

Someone I'm close to just got an official bipolar diagnosis and this description reads like it was written based on the giant warning in the box of antidepressants that she had to stop taking. In my opinion it would be irresponsible to either take on this work or encourage him to see anyone other than a psychiatrist about this. There may be some core good ideas here, but during a manic episode or mixed state is not the time to develop them.
posted by Sequence at 1:49 AM on July 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have a friend like this. Wants to set up an import business to Canada from another country. I have experience with international trade, but in a government role. He wants me to help him. It's a constant request over the years, but his schemes aren't even half-baked. They are just fantasies.

So I just told him: look, I really like you as a friend, but I am not interested in these sorts of projects. I have plenty of work that I enjoy, and my extra time is spent getting more of the work that I enjoy. I don't have the capacity to take on these sorts of projects.
posted by My Dad at 1:58 AM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are two approaches that I would take to this. For reference, I offered business services within a specialized niche for many years. Sometimes people approached me with projects that were not part of my background and that I didn't want to do because I had my own work-related specialized projects to chase and work on.

I would usually respond and in my answer, include these ideas: 1) I like the person 2) I like and respect their ideas and want them to succeed 3) but I don't have the skill sets to do this. I specialize in 1, 2, and 3; they would need someone with skill sets a, b, and c. I'm very sorry, I wish I could help them. But I would not be the best person or resource for them. This way its not a personal thing, not a failing on them, but a gap in you if that makes sense.

Also, for someone like this (if I liked them and/or if they were my friend) - I would look up a few nonprofits that had similar missions or were already doing these things in the community. I would encourage the person to volunteer with them. I would also suggest things that they could study and watch when they were there. So, for example, my guess would be if this person wants to creat a nonprofit to address problem Z (but doesn't know about legal organizations, funding, grants, how you measure these things) - tell the person that knowing, understanding, and thinking about those things would be important. Why not volunteer and work towards what they want while studying it within an organization that is successful? I suspect that this might also address the person's loneliness. But anyway, I think that would be the place for someone like this to go.

Depending where you are located, if you are in the United States, an organization called SCORE helps people start small businesses. Some of the events are well done and when I've attended, I've observed that many of the attendees - haven't started or don't know what they are missing/what they need to do. Some of the events are free, including meeting with a person who has a busines background, to full day seminars (with people within various business niches).

I would suggest learning from the nonprofits before even working with SCORE though.

Good luck. I think its great that you are that compassionate about someone who wants help wiht their ideas.
posted by Wolfster at 3:55 AM on July 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I agree with Wolfster's idea of suggesting some experience and networking possibilities. By "older" do you mean eligible for AARP? If so, it might be good for him to check with the local branch. At one point, a friend of mine-- well below AARP age-- received free start-up consulting for a small business from some business people who were members, through some program they were having locally, I believe. I don't think the man you've been talking to needs that specific kind of service just yet-- he doesn't even have a proposed business-- but a lot of their activities seem to do with transitions to other kinds of work. It does sound like his mental health is precarious, and maybe his financial situation too. Maybe just having some sort of employment and more social activity is what he really needs. But I don't think it's your job to advise him about that. If you want a way to let him down, one thing to say might be that he's not at a stage where he needs to be paying for help; he needs to be going through avenues to decide what to do and here are the types of organizations that will help, period.
posted by BibiRose at 6:16 AM on July 26, 2017

Response by poster: Note:

A) he's not a friend, he's a client of the mini consulting business (which are one-off sessions). This is the first time I've talked to him.

B) We're both in Australia, I don't know what the local version of AARP is.
posted by divabat at 7:01 AM on July 26, 2017

Response by poster: Also I've brought up the networking and collaborating with other orgs idea and he keeps telling me about all of these companies and organisations he's talked to that claimed to help but have screwed him over. I have a bad feeling that if/when I turn him down he's going to make the same claim about me.
posted by divabat at 7:03 AM on July 26, 2017

He may make claims about you, but it sounds like you would be in good company and people would consider the source. You can still have a clear conscience about your own participation and that (to my mind) would include not wasting his time and money. It's hard because he sounds rather endearing, but if you are humoring him-- and even if you decided not to charge him, for example-- he would be angriest at the moment he realized you were humoring him. Ultimately you do him a compliment by treating him on a professional level.

This advice comes from years of teaching and training about how to deal with vulnerable students, so it may not completely apply to you, but I have often made use of the concept that you always treat people like they are completely competent as long as you have a professional relationship. Nothing is scarier than for someone to realize they are being treated differently because people have decided they've lost their grip.
posted by BibiRose at 9:10 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a management consultant as well. PM me; I'd be glad to chat further with you about this (no charge - always happy to meet and exchange ideas others about situations like this).

Thing is, I don't want to end up being the person that pushes him over the edge.

This here is the crux of your question/concern. I haven't run into anyone this emotionally needy, but I have had what might be a vaguely similar situation where free initial discussion (with actual, actionable ideas generated and given to prospect) turns into "well, I took your advice and it worked out great. I can't see paying you, but I'd like to keep meeting with you."

And the similarity, vague as it is, is that the answer is the same: you have to set your boundary and stick to it. You are not responsible for their problems, inability or unwillingness to pay, or in this case, the fact that you don't see these as problems you can solve (because they're more psychological than business/organizational). Nor are you responsible for his emotional health.

So the truthful answer is "Hey, this is a little out of my wheelhouse. I focus on shorter term problems, and have too many other clients to take on these projects. Good luck to you." And then don't elaborate, explain, or get pulled into another complication on it.

As for the concern over his damaging your reputation; I'd concur with the advice above that no one who knows him is likely to take his complaints very seriously.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

AARP is an association of retired persons.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:32 AM on July 26, 2017

Response by poster: Update: I sent a letter to him following Wolfstar's structure - telling him that I appreciate his passion and his desire to make the world better, but that I don't have the time to do the kind of work he wants me to do. I also sent him a bunch of resources on business planning and non-profit management, as well as links to a couple of organisations near him that also do youth work.

I'm not so worried about him ruining my reputation per se, more that I dread any possible backlash he sends to me (e.g. what if he gets verbally abusive or threatens his life?). But y'all saying that I can't be responsible for his emotional health is right. There's only so much I can do and trying to keep him alive at the cost of my own mental health is not one of them.
posted by divabat at 5:23 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update to the update: he was very sweet and kind about it, whew!
posted by divabat at 9:25 PM on July 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

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