Recently I was walking through the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, when I passed a large glass box jutting out from the wall. The glass room reminded me of an aquarium or a terrarium, except instead of fish or lizards frolicking around, it was full of people. These people, on display for the harried travelers walking by, sat on tastefully appointed furniture and decor. The one thing they had in common? Smoking.
I have seen these spaces before, and it always reminds me of a zoo exhibit. In the U.S., about 12 percent of the population smokes cigarettes. This is down from almost half the population in the 1950s. While smoking in public used to be commonplace, these fancy cages in airports silently witness to the fact that what was once fashionable is now understood to be an unhealthy, addictive habit.
Most people don’t need to be told that smoking is bad for their health. However, breaking out of the cage of addiction is one of the hardest tasks in the world. So, how can you lovingly help someone you care about kick the habit? Here’s a good starting point:
Look for a natural opening.
Unsolicited medical advice is one of life’s great annoyances, and some of us are as addicted to giving advice as people are to smoking their cigarettes. Instead of forcing your concerns into a conversation, listen for phrases like “I’m thinking about quitting” or “My doctor said I need to quit smoking.” These are openings for you to gently express affirmation and pledge your support to be a resource and a friend to them.
Respect their agency.
The American Cancer Society lists several tips for helping people stop smoking. The very first is, “Respect that the person trying to quit is in charge. This is their lifestyle change and their challenge, not yours.” This can be hard when you feel personally invested in someone’s well-being, especially if their well-being is connected to yours. Yet, as with other areas of life, you can’t control someone else. Instead, influence them in ways that empower them to make their own choice. Otherwise, your forthright attempts might make them feel worse, causing them to light up just so they can lighten up.
Affirm their ability.
Part of stopping any harmful habit is having a good support system. There is a Bible text that speaks of “bearing one another’s burdens” in times of trial and failure (Galatians 6:2). The physiological symptoms of withdrawal, as well as feelings of shame when relapse occurs, contribute to smokers abandoning hope. Our presence, words of affirmation, and gentleness can inspire them to courageously continue down the smoke-free road. Highlight their good qualities and the victories they’ve had in other parts of their life as evidence of their ability.
The American Lung Association has many tips for helping smokers stop, and a great number of them have to do with unconditional love and being present. Checking in on our friends and offering to spend time doing healthy activities together are just a couple of ways you can encourage a stop-smoking journey.
Even though it can be hard to watch a loved one do things you know are unhealthy, you can’t force someone to make good choices. Forgetting that fact is usually what leads to nagging, lecturing, and shaming others. It’s also important to remember that any difficult task requires grace and encouragement. There will be bad days and good days, but it’s the ability to continue to try, bolstered by loved ones, that will keep us all headed in the right direction.
Seth Pierce, PhD, is the author of Seeking an Understanding: How to Have Difficult Conversations without Destroying Your Relationships.