How to Conduct an Effective Intervention (Part 1)

February 3, 2017

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

BCC Note: This post is one of two posts. It is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies an “Overcoming Addiction” seminar that Brad developed. This portion is an appendix to the seminar.

If you are reading this, you are hurting because someone you love is destroying his or her life with drugs and alcohol. You likely feel angry that the person cannot see what is happening to him- or herself and others. You feel frustrated that previous conversations have not been heard. Part of you wants to give up and part of you refuses to do so. Often we come to the idea of conducting an intervention as a “last ditch effort” to get through to someone that we love.

This post is meant to help you take this step strategically rather than desperately.

Sometimes we are prone to think that interventions are a modern invention, but intentional, tough love conversations in the context of people who know the spiraling individual best have always been part of God’s design. “Curiously, intervention is hailed as one of the most significant advances in drug treatment. Yet church discipline is the original and intervention the imitator.”[1]

If you read Matthew 18:15-20, the primary biblical passage for outlining the process of church discipline, you see an intentional order: personal conversation, small group conversation, and large group conversation. This raises an important question as you consider conducting an intervention: have you had a direct personal conversation that addresses your concerns?

A group intervention should not be the first attempt to address an addiction. We need to model the courage it will take to acknowledge an addiction in the way we address the addiction. We need to have the courage to say, “I am concerned about you and I can’t be your friend and be silent. I think you have a problem with [substance]. Can we talk about it?”

Nobody with a substance abuse problem ever wants to hear the phrase, “You have a problem.” In fact, most addicts don’t think they have a problem at all. Those who do are apt to deny it – strongly. But the reality is that hearing a friend or loved one utter those four simple words may save someone’s life.

A group intervention is most effective when it’s the culmination and echo of these loving, personal interventions. With that said, let’s look at how to conduct an effective group intervention in three phases.

Phase One: Before the Intervention

An effective intervention is not a spontaneous event. It requires planning and preparation. Each of the factors below is an important part of preparing for an effective intervention.

  • Pray: What you desire as the outcome for the intervention is more than you are able to accomplish even if you do everything in your power as well as you possibly can. You can’t force your friend’s eyes open to the destructiveness of his or her choices. You want humility to replace defensiveness. You want acknowledgement to replace denial. Those are not things we can manufacture. Those are realities only God can create in the heart of your friend.

When we fail to recognize this, we either become controlling or codependent; we either try to force change or blame ourselves if our friend doesn’t begin to pursue recovery. In this sense, we need to pray (protecting our own heart) as much as our friend needs to be prayed for (that God would soften his or her heart).

  • Decide Who: Three questions should determine who participates in the intervention. An ideal number for an intervention is 5-10 people. Preferably these people would represent different spheres of the individual’s life (family, work, church, friends, etc.).
    • Who has the quality of relationship to allow their voice will be heard? It should be obvious why each person present has a vested interest in the individual acknowledging the addiction.
    • Who has the concrete information that is most irrefutable? More will be said on being concrete in a latter point.
    • Who has sufficient self-control so that their presence will not be a distraction? These meetings are often emotionally intense; immature or short-tempered members of the intervention team can easily become a distraction from the intent of the meeting.
  • Decide When and Where: There is no such thing as a perfect moment; however, giving thought to when and where an intervention takes place can increase the meeting’s opportunity to be successful. An intervention should not occur in a public place (restaurant, work office, etc.). Embarrassment would distract from the content of the meeting.

Most often interventions are staged events; that is, the individual being confronted is unaware the meeting will occur. Usually this involves having the intervention team present at the individual’s home or apartment at a time when he or she will be predictably arriving (e.g., after work or class).

  • Decide How: An intervention should not be a long meeting; its effectiveness is not found in the abundance of words. The meeting needs to stay on message; unless you prepare and rehearse for the meeting, that is unlikely to occur. It is recommended that you have a written agenda for the meeting. It should be simple enough that those on the intervention team don’t need to have it in their hand. A sample meeting plan might look like this:

Note: People who speak should begin by expressing their love for the individual and saying that their goal is to see him or her restored to health; it is not to punish or shame them. If needed, the leader may call on each person when it is that person’s turn to speak.

    • Leader: [Express love for the person, explain the reason for meeting, ask for cooperation with the process of the meeting.]
      • Reason for the meeting: “We believe you have a problem and cannot in good conscience remain silent.”
      • Process for the meeting: “We want you to hear us and, after that, we’re committed to hearing you.”
    • Participant One: [Express love for the person and cite the most concrete examples of risk-taking behaviors (drinking and driving, having to pay back threatening drug dealer, etc.).]
    • Participant Two: [Express love for the person and cite the most concrete examples of health deterioration.]
    • Participant Three: [Express love for the person and cite the most concrete examples of neglecting relationships that the individual is known to value (lack of time with children, neglecting friends, etc.).]
    • Participant Four: [Express love for the person and cite the most concrete examples of financial deterioration (borrowing money, being behind on bills, etc.).]
    • Participant Five: [Express love for the person and cite the most concrete examples of neglecting school or work (negative performance evaluations, examples of being fired, dropping grades, etc.).]
    • Leader: “In light of these concerns and our love for you, we believe you need to seek help for your addiction. We have several options we believe are viable and effective. We are asking that you consider these.”
    • Listen: “We know what we’ve said cannot be easy to hear, but we want to know what you think and what you think would be wise for you to do in light of the concerns we’ve raised.”
    • [If the intervention is rejected, meaning the individual is unwilling to acknowledge the addiction and seek help, then the meeting would conclude with a list of consequences the group is willing to mutually enforce for the individual’s good.]
    • [If the intervention is embraced, then the group becomes a support network for the individual as he or she begins to enact the steps agreed upon and work on a more comprehensive plan of recovery.]
  • Be Concrete: Every example you use should be factual and irrefutable. Expect that the weakest example you verbalize in the intervention will be the focal point for the individual’s response. Do not provide a weak example that could be used to discredit the other concerns. Step two of this material will help you think through the most concrete examples.
  • Repent Personally: It is easy for the level of frustration and hurt amongst the intervention team to overpower their sense of empathy. When this happens, the intervention will feel harsh and unloving. Prior to the intervention, the team should spend some time acknowledging their personal need for the same grace that they want their friend to embrace.

This exercise generates a better appreciation for the degree of vulnerability that the group is asking their friend to display. While this exercise is unlikely to change the content of what is shared or asked (nor should it), it is very likely to impact the tone of the meeting and increase the tangibility of the group’s love for the person being confronted.

  • Rehearse: If the time from initiating the meeting to listening is going to be less than 30 minutes (which is ideal), then people will need to think through what they are going to say and practice saying it. Just like it takes longer to write a short e-mail than a long one, it takes a bit of work to concisely say important things.

As the intervention team rehearses the meeting, several questions need to be asked about each segment of the meeting:

    • Is it clear that love for the individual is more important than the pain they’ve caused or damage they’ve done?
    • Are any examples used that sound weak or could be easily debunked?
    • Is language used that begins to make excuses for or explains away the addictive behavior?

At the end of rehearsing the meeting, it is wise to role play how the individual might respond, so that the group can think through how to end the meeting in each instance. Possible responses to prepare for would include:

    • Active Resistance: “You’re all wrong. I don’t have a problem.”
    • Being Personally Offended: “I can’t believe you would all team up and attack me this way.”
    • Debating Details: “I can explain why every example you’ve given isn’t as bad as you say.”
    • Changing Whose on Trial: “How can you say this about me when you [blank]?”
    • Passive Compliance: “You’ve given me some things I need to think about and I will.”
    • Getting Lost in Sorrow: “[Sobbing] I can’t believe I’m as bad as you say. I’m a horrible person/friend.”
    • Active Repentance: “I do have a problem. I need to address it. [Blank] option seems like the best start.”
    • Other: You know your friend. What other responses seem likely?
  • Research Options: The ultimate goal of an intervention is not acknowledgement but action; acknowledgement is merely a means to an end. The team needs to have tangible, actionable follow-up steps that begin the process of recovery available to engage immediately following the meeting.
    • If the substance abused and degree of abuse warrant detox, then the intervention team needs to know the local detox centers and entry process. This can be determined by calling the local hospitals.
    • Knowing the days and times of local recovery group meetings or ministries. Timing the intervention to occur just before one of these meetings would be ideal.
    • Knowing the intake process for viable residential programs if this is a potential good fit for your friend.
    • Having a list of local counselors who specialize in addiction assessment and counseling. If this seems like it is likely to be the most agreeable next step, ask the counselor if you can scholarship a session immediately following the intervention.
      • Note: The individual would have to make the appointment and complete the necessary paperwork. But having a scheduled, paid-for assessment session already in place can help remove barriers from taking immediate action.
    • Having a list of individuals who are willing to serve the role of accountability friends and a schedule for when these meetings could occur.

Remember, don’t offer options that aren’t a good fit. The type of resources in your community or the type of addiction your friend struggles with may make some of these recommendations a bad fit. Providing bad follow-up options is a good way to undermine an otherwise well-run intervention.

You’ll notice an effective intervention is preceded by many phone calls, and potentially, some financial investment. It is worth it. In an intervention, you are likely risking your last remaining social capital. The work leading into an intervention helps make sure this risk is a good investment.

From this research you will be able to use names when referencing options (e.g., “When we spoke to Dr. Smith at the detox center, she said… And counselor Davis indicated his initial assessment helps individuals determine….”). Being able to talk about this concretely helps make everything you say seem more immediately actionable and reasonable.

[1] Edward T. Welch, A Banquet in the Grave (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing Co., 2001), 96.

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.