7 Things to Tell Your Sponsee First

One of the challenges when working with others can be finding an ideal way to get all the expectations out onto the table from the very start.  This especially true when working with someone who is completely new to the program.

Using the seven points below will lead to more effectiveness, harmony, and peace within the sponsor/sponsee relationship as well as reducing confusion and disappointment for all from the very start.

1) My Directions for Working With You Are on Page 94

Before any step work can commence, we want new sponsees to understand why we do everything we do as sponsors.  Pointing them to the first full paragraph on page 94 as our written directions for sponsorship puts everybody on the same page, literally.

The remainder of this list is an item by item examination of the directions in that paragraph.  They continue to prove useful in helping newcomers know what to expect from the sponsor/sponsee relationship.

2) Here’s an Outline of the 12 Step Program

“Outline the program of action, explaining how you made a self appraisal [step 4], how you straightened out your past [step 9], and why you are now endeavoring to be helpful to him [step 12].” p.94

People want, and deserve, to know what will be required when they finally decide to do the work necessary to recover.  It doesn’t take long to give a brief description of what’s entailed in each step.  This is easier than you might imagine. In fact, it can all be done in less than two minutes.

Want to see?  CLICK HERE to download and hear my free Two Minute Twelve Step Talk.

3) We Will Always Be Working My 12th Step

“It is important for him to realize that your attempt to pass this on to him plays a vital part in your own recovery.” p. 94

FUN FACT: We don’t carry the message because we are trying to be nice people.  We carry the message because our own recovery depends on it.

When we work with newcomers it is important for them to realize this.  That means we aren’t going to gloss over it briefly.  We are going to address it whenever it arises.

For example, whenever a newcomer I’m working with ends a step working session by saying to me “thank you”, I’ll make it a point to ask “for what?”

To which they may give a confused look and/or answer with something to the effect of “Dude, you’re saving my life.”

At this point, it’s my duty to address their confusion.  As gently as possible I’ll usually say something along the lines of:

“That’s not true, buddy.  You are the one who is saving my life.  That’s not to say there isn’t a person in our 12 step fellowship who will save your life.  There is.  You just haven’t met them yet.  My job is simply to get you ready for them before you meet them, just like somebody once got me ready for you before I met you.”

4) You are Helping Me More Than I’m Helping You

“Actually, he may be helping you more than you’re helping him.” p. 94

This may sound like a reiteration of the previous line, but it’s a little different.

POINT TO PONDER: While the role we play in the newcomers recovery may be just as vital as the role they play in ours, we are certainly getting the better end of the bargain.

Imagine for a moment our prospect wants to replace you.  They go into a meeting and raise their hand and say “I’m looking for a new sponsor.”

Couple the fact that the term “sponsor” has become so convoluted with authoritarian notions and the fact that there are no shortage of egos within 12 step fellowships, and our prospect will likely have no shortage of people lining up to volunteer.

Now imagine instead that we try to replace them.  We go into a meeting and make a similar announcement: “I’m looking for person to spend time with me and an open Big Book so I can take them through the work.”

We may find ourselves hearing chirping crickets.

The truth is that people like us, for them, are a dime a dozen; people like them, for us, are few and far between.  When we find a person who is willing to actually do the work, that person is truly as precious as gold.

FUN FACT: “You’re helping me more than I’m helping you” isn’t just some rhetoric we sell newcomers to make them feel better; it’s the truth.

5) You Don’t Owe Me Anything

“Make it plain he is under no obligation to you” p. 94

Often people view this line as a way of saying that we don’t charge money to sponsor people or that we don’t have them doing chores around our house (I’m looking at you, California fellowships)  While this interpretation certainly remains true, it means so much more than that.

Sometimes I’ve gotten a phone call that sounds something like this:

Me: Hello?
Sponsee: Hey man.  I’m real sorry.
Me: What are you sorry for?
Sponsee: Well, I haven’t called you in about three weeks.
Me: Buddy, I’ve been happy, joyous, and free for the past three weeks.  How have you been?
Sponsee: Not good.  I relapsed.  I’m real sorry.  Remember we were supposed to get together three weeks ago to do my 5th step?
Me: Yes.  I remember
Sponsee: Well, the truth is I didn’t have my 4th step done.  I figured I would finish it that night.  So I ducked your calls and tried to come up with an excuse.
Me: Ok.
Sponsee: But then I still didn’t have it finished so I didn’t call you the next day.  Then two days turned into three and by the time I got it done it had already been a week and I couldn’t think up a reason to explain why I hadn’t called you.

Can you spot all the obligations to which this sponsee is trying to adhere?  At this point, I understand it to be my job to clarify for the sponsee what “no obligation” actually means: they aren’t beholden to me in any way.

In fact, during a conversation like this I will typically respond by telling them they don’t owe me any of the things to which they just alluded:

  • You don’t owe me a completed 4th step
  • You don’t owe me a 5th step
  • You don’t owe me a kept appointment
  • You don’t owe me an excuse
  • You don’t owe me an update
  • You don’t owe me an explanation
  • You don’t owe me sobriety
  • You don’t owe me a phone call
  • And you certainly don’t owe me an apology

This is what “no obligation” truly means.

6) I only have one hope for you once you get well.

“that you only hope he will help other alcoholics when he escapes his own difficulties.” p. 94

Personally, there are three reasons I hope this:

  1. It’s nice to see people begin the journey.  Often, proponents of working the steps slowly will say something along the lines of “it’s a journey, not a destination.”  and that’s true.  However, I believe it’s evident the journey doesn’t even begin until we’ve reached step 12.  Prior to that we are still preparing for the journey to begin.
  2. It’s painful to watch people relapse.   An old-timer told me “A big part of long-term sobriety is learning to step over the dead bodies.”  Perhaps he was being a bit cynical, but nothing hurts more than watching a person go through the work of the first eleven steps (the pain of facing truth in step 4, the embarrassment  of sharing that truth in step 5, the humility of making amends in step 9) just to throw it all away with a reluctance to carry the message.
  3. It’s nice to have a comrade on the firing line.  Once our sponsees reach step 12 they will essentially become our sober peers.  As such, they’ve just doubled our chances to be useful, because the next sponsee they get will be taken through the steps by them under our guidance, and vice versa.

The next line reinforces this:

“Suggest how important it is that he place the welfare of other people ahead of his own.” p. 94

Already we are giving our prospect a preview of the importance of working with others.

7) You are not under any pressure to do this work

“Make it clear he is not under pressure, that he needn’t see you again.” p. 94

If we get to step 4 and they don’t want to do it, or they decide they want to do their 5th step with someone else, or they say they’re going to skip their amends, we don’t pressure them.  Addiction is going to do that for us.

POINT TO PONDER: Most people seeking a 12 step program have no shortage of people who are emotionally invested in whether or not they get well.  They don’t need you to take on that role too.

Most addicts entering recovery have an abundance of people trying to control them, whether it be a spouse, family member, employer, doctor, court, etc…  We are not here to tell them what to do.  We simply lay the kit of spiritual tools at their feet and allow them to pick them up as slowly or  as quickly as they like.

Ever feel concerned about your recovery?

I’ve developed a printable checklist to help you stay mindful of your efforts.  

One Comment on “7 Things to Tell Your Sponsee First

  1. I appreciate your comments and perspective. In my estimation they are incredibly accurate. And I appreciate your staying close to the ‘text’. My sponsor is fond of saying ‘There is only one ‘expert’ on AA- the 1st 164 pages, the rest of us can only share our experience strength and hope’.
    The question I believe I need to keep asking myself, be it as a sober alcoholic, a ‘sponsor’ (though I’m not crazy about this term- I prefer ‘advocate’ instead- or simply ‘friend)’- or as a home group member is “How can I be more effective?”
    So much misinformation do I hear within the ‘confines’ of AA meetings. Believe me, I don’t want to be a ‘bleeding deacon’. I DO want to be of maximum benefit to my fellows. But when I hear someone announce, “God helps those who help themselves! It says so right in the book..”
    What book is that? If I could ‘help myself in respect to alcohol and unmanageable thinking, believe me, I would have done it a long time ago.
    Or one that I hear common- “If you’re not having fun in sobriety, you’re doing something wrong!”. This contrasts greatly to the claim my ‘friend’ gives me when I’m struggling with my perception of my life, which is, “Ron, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. Just don’t stop doing your job in AA.”
    Sorry, I’m rambling. Thank you so much for your toil here. Obviously a lot of time and effort has gone in to it.
    My only ‘suggestion’ and not that this is a criticism by any stretch, rather it’s something my ‘friend’ always reminds me. Particularly when I get frustrated to my own perceived effectiveness or people whom I’m trying to assist reaction to my effectiveness, which is found on page 95 in Working With Others- “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop.”
    Thanks again,
    Ron B

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