Welcome to Dear Melissa, where we answer your questions about transitioning into or or maintaining a healthy Whole9 life, helping you figure out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking to a woman who isn’t sure how to set healthy boundaries when sharing the Good Food word with friends, family, and co-workers.

Dear Melissa, 

I’ve been living a Paleo lifestyle for almost two and a half years. My experience has been that if you have some success, it’s easy to fall into a spokesperson role. While this can be exhilarating at first, it soon becomes tiresome (for everyone involved!) and eventually begins to take a toll. 

How do you deal with the loved ones, friends, or even just acquaintances who approach you fired up for the Magic New Diet? Specifically, what do you do when they inevitably give up or move on? Or worse, when they have some success—followed by justification for a return to old ways? 

I find it hard not to be offended, or saddened, or annoyed. I also don’t want to be anyone’s food police, so I never say anything and try to tame my judgments. But it sure makes it hard to be excited for the next person who wants to shake me down for advice, recipes, tips, etc. and then move on without so much as a thank you, or acknowledgement of my low return on investment. I just don’t even know how to be hopeful and authentic anymore. –A.C., Portland, OR 

Dear A.C.,

Trust me when I say I feel your pain. The last flight I took, I spent the last hour talking to a nice college kid local to Salt Lake City. At his request (and because I had time on my hands), I told him everything he needed to know about Paleo, the Whole30, and how it might help the chronic inflammation in his knees—maybe even get him playing basketball pain-free again. I gave him my card and told him to email me. I offered to give him a copy of our book. I offered to meet with him again if he wanted more information. He was super excited about the idea, and seemed really eager to get started. The result? Nothing. Nada. Zero follow-up.  Sigh.

When I worked a corporate job, I managed more than 20 people in three different offices. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from my boss was this: don’t spend your precious time and energy taking a D worker and moving him up to a B-. Your time and energy are better spent taking a motivated, driven, eager B+ and turning her into an A. You have a limited amount of attention to give to people in any given day. Spend that money where you’ll get the highest return on investment.

See where I’m going with this?

Here’s the conundrum—you have information that can change people’s lives, and (I believe) an obligation to share that with those who ask you for help. However, you cannot give most of your attention to someone who is, in all probability, not going to do anything with the information—because that leaves you broke, unable to give to those who are motivated, driven, and eager. The trick is to figure out who’s who, and focus on helping those who are the most likely to actually make some changes. Of course, that doesn’t mean you totally ignore those you vote Most Likely to Return to Nachos and Beer. It just means you adjust your strategy accordingly.

The Initial Interaction

Casual acquaintances aren’t people you know well, or in whom you have a vested interest, so they’re hard to judge as “motivated” or “ready.” For these people, have an intro talk prepared. You’re going to lead them to the information, but let them take the drink if and when they are ready. You invite them to follow up with you only after they’ve done some homework and are committed to trying something new. Your script looks like this:

“I started on Paleo with the Whole30—it’s this 30 day program designed to help you figure out whether the foods you’re eating are making you less healthy. The program was life-changing for me—I lost weight, have tons of energy, never went hungry, and never counted a single calorie. In a nutshell, you just eat meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats for 30 days. There’s a great book all about the plan; it’s called It Starts With Food. Or you can visit their website—here, I’ll write it down for you—and see what the program entails for yourself. Give it a read, and if you decide it’s something you want to try, give me a call when you’re ready to start.” 

If they ask follow-up questions about recipes, meal planning, etc., all you have to say is, “The book and website explain it all in way more detail than I could right now. Just check it out for yourself!” You’ve given them the information, and told them you’re open to helping them should they decide to pull the trigger. Your job here is done. If you never hear about it from them again, you’ve only spent about 60 seconds educating them. If they are ambitious enough to read what you told them to read, chances are they’ll get back in touch, at which point you can evaluate where to go from there.

Friends, family, and co-workers are easier to judge whether they’re the type to give it a go or dismiss the info. The hard part is, you also have a more vested interest in how well they fare—the closer they are to you, the more you care. For those you believe are asking you for help, but probably won’t actually follow through, your approach is the same as with a casual acquaintance. Give them a starting point, and have them follow up if they’re still interested. For those you think might actually start making some changes, you need a more detailed approach. Your opening statements can be the same as above, but here you’ll be spending a bit more time getting the person up and running. Your script might add:

“It might look intimidating at first, but I’ve got a ton of resources to help you. There’s a quick-start guide, shopping list, meal planning template, and pantry-stocking guide on the Whole9 site, and I’ve got some websites with really delicious and easy recipes to get you started. There are even a few Whole30 30-day meal plans online, if you really want someone to tell you what to do. If you want to give it a try, let me know and I’ll spend a half-hour talking you through what you need to get started. In the meantime, let me email you my list of resources so you can do some research on your own.”

Have an email template all ready to go, detailing your top resources—the free Guides on our website, your favorite Paleo blogs and recipe sites, and a link to our Whole30 Timeline post and Whole30 forum. This way, you’re not spending time crafting these resources from scratch every time someone asks. 

Again, your work here is done. You’ve given them more time and some personalized attention, maybe even answered a few additional follow-up questions, but you haven’t invested seriously just yet. Let them do the research and see if they come back eager for more.

The Follow-Up 

Now, if any of these groups follow up after they’ve done their “homework,” you need to decide your next move. It may appear as if  they’re motivated; they’re asking you a ton of follow-up questions, challenging some of your responses, and taking good notes. In the Stages of Change model, this is called “contemplation,” where someone is willing to consider the risks and rewards related to a change. However, someone might stay in “contemplation” for months or even years. In fact, they may never actually move into “preparation” or “action.” Which is to say, just because people seem really excited and do all the reading and ask you a bunch of questions doesn’t mean they’re actually ready to do anything.

So how do you keep from spending hours and hours with someone still in contemplation? Force them to move to the preparation stage before you go down that road with them. Give them more homework, and ask them to truly prepare to make these changes. Your script might say this:

“I’m excited to hear you’re interested in the Whole30! Before we jump in, though, you need to know that getting started with the program isn’t always easy. There are some things you should do to prepare for the 30 days—clean out your pantry,  plan your first few meals, and hit the grocery store to stock your pantry and fridge. It’s also helpful to (insert your best tips here). There are some great guides on the Whole9 site to help you do this. Why don’t you pick a date to clean out your pantry and plan a few meals on your own, and then call me. I’d be happy to go shopping with you, and lend you some of my favorite cookbooks too. I’m sure together, we can easily get you through the first week.” 

See what you did there? You’re asking them to meet you halfway—you do a little, then I’ll give you a little more. I don’t meant this to sound like you’re testing them–you’re just gathering more information to determine whether or not they’ll be a good “investment.”

An aside: Maybe you’re thinking, this sounds pretty harsh, Melissa. Take it from someone who helps people for a living—it’s just the reality of the situation for anyone who is called on to give. You only have so much of YOU to go around, and if you spend it on someone who has no intention of actually making any changes, that leaves nothing for the person who would really benefit from your time. Not to mention that giving too much too often leaves you less healthy, less willing, and perhaps too jaded to be able to do this “work” you’re doing long-term. Protect your time, energy, and health today, so you can give more to more people for a longer period of time.

It’s Not Personal

Finally, you have to understand that you can’t do it for them. Oh, you know that already? You may logically believe that, but as soon as someone who really needs the Paleo diet starts asking questions, you revert right back to “If I give you enough good information and help and support, I know I can make a difference this time!” You may spend hours with someone who is truly excited about the program, and truly ready to try… and then they bail halfway and don’t look back. In that case, you simply have to let it go. You did the best you could. It was time well-spent—you know this, because they actually tried. And the lessons you taught them aren’t lost—they’re just in hibernation for now. So shake it off and don’t take it personally. Everyone needs to come to this in their own time, and it’s not your fault (or your responsibility) if now is not their time.

And not to get all hippie-dippy-kumbaya, but you never know who your actions will affect, or how they will ripple into the universe. Worst case scenario, you know you’ve got some good karma coming back to you.

Best in health,

Is this good advice? Do you want to add your two cents? We welcome your input! Share your best advice for A.C. in comments.

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Remember, we aren’t answering technical questions via this column, nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.

Melissa Urban

Co-Founder / CEO

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.