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Intervention 101

LukeNotes, Spring 2015

Every intervention is different because people and situations are different.

When planning an intervention to help someone with an addiction or emotional problem, it is important to adapt to the circumstances: the who, what, when, where and why.

That said, effective interventions share several basic, unifying principles.


A successful intervention – which doesn’t always mean the person goes right into treatment – calls for a good measure of trust between the parties involved.

As we all know, trust does not develop instantaneously. Authentic trust requires time and experiences of care, concern and mutual respect. It is best to include trusted individuals when helping to deliver an intervention message and not just rely on an authority figure to handle the situation. Of course, if the authority figure has the relationship and those qualities, he or she can be one of the best persons to be a part of an intervention.


Thorough planning is essential. An intervention is best thought of as an ongoing process as opposed to a discrete event. That means a good intervention starts long before the actual meeting and lasts well beyond the meeting.

It involves thoughtful coordination and communication before, during and after.

Participants in an intervention should have a plan of action (including a contingency plan). How will the intervention team address the individual and respond to her/his reactions?

While an individual may feel relief following an intervention, it is not uncommon also to feel panic, anger, defensiveness or even hopelessness when told you need treatment.

Among the questions to consider: Is there a trusted friend who can stay with the individual between the time of the meeting and getting into treatment?

Is it best to hospitalize the person prior to transporting him or her to a residential treatment program? Perhaps most importantly, is this intervention part of a larger, well-thought-out plan, in case an incremental approach (for example, outpatient treatment first) doesn’t work and a higher level of care is eventually required?

Are the means available to carry out proposed consequences or to leverage the person’s cooperation? Are they communicated ahead of time, applied fairly, firmly and in a reasonable manner if the person refuses to get help?

As part of the planning process, coordinate with other people who are important in the individual’s life. Trusted peers, family members and already-involved professionals can add information and emotional safety to the process.

Saint Luke Institute’s clinical team also is available to provide guidance on developing and implementing a plan, and the Institute’s five-day evaluation can be helpful in assessing a situation and developing next steps.

Delivering the Message

One of the most crucial factors in any intervention is actually delivering the message to a person that he or she may need help.

Concern and compassion must be expressed (and systemically cultivated) throughout the process. An intervention done from any other motivation is neither advisable nor helpful. Meeting on neutral territory may be useful, depending upon the person’s relationship with those involved. Timing is also always a relevant consideration, as is taking real care to honestly express concerns and expectations without shaming the person.

Keep It Simple

Striking a balance between too little and too much information and feedback is important. The individual likely already will be overwhelmed and unable to process a great deal of detail.

For this reason, it can be best to deliver concise, manageable amounts of verbal information along with a written summary of the concerns. After all, the intent of an intervention is to respectfully provide additional information and perspectives that help a person accept the assistance that he or she needs and is forthcoming.

Along these lines, leave as much choice (within certain parameters) as possible to the individual. It is obviously ideal for someone to seek treatment himself, post intervention, without feeling coerced or as if he is responding to an ultimatum simply out of obedience.

Keeping a constructive tone and providing helpful content (e.g., what has been observed that is worrisome and what is expected/encouraged to address the issue) can be the difference between someone feeling understood versus resentful and out of control.

Follow Through

Finally, following through after the actual meeting is an important part of any good intervention. It will help your friend, colleague, priest or community member immeasurably to know that he or she is not forgotten by hearing from you periodically following an evaluation or after he or she seeks treatment.

This brings us full circle to building trust. When done with genuine concern and compassion, and as part of a broader intervention, continuing to build trust can only increase the likelihood that the person who is the focus of your concern truly receives the care he needs and deserves.

Dr. Steve Alexander is on the clinical team for the Halfway House, Saint Luke Institute’s transitional housing program for clergy and men and women religious.