When a loved one is struggling with substance use, it might feel impossible to reach them. Finding the right words and timing can pose a barrier to effective conversations about important topics such as starting and staying the course with treatment. Even in the most ideal situations, families can experience breakdowns in communication that contribute to conflict, and this common problem can be further exacerbated when addiction is involved.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid common pitfalls and create resilient communication patterns for your family so that you can prioritize working cohesively and tackling the problem at hand without communication itself becoming the issue that needs addressing.
Why Is Healthy Communication So Important?
If you have ever been left baffled by the outcome of a conversation, you know that effective communication is easily foiled. Such situations can include when an innocent comment was taken to mean something else and blown out of proportion, or when you were unable to decipher whether a curt response was a product of anger, apathy, or something else entirely. If you find yourself getting stuck in unproductive loops instead of making the progress you desire, it may be time to truly understand the communication patterns of your family and the areas where you can improve.
Building Better Communication
Many common stumbling blocks in important conversations can be avoided by having the proper tools in place before those intense conversations come up. While healthy communication is a learned and practiced behavior rather than an innate skill, it can become natural the more it is reinforced within the family.
According to the NIH, an essential component of communicating effectively is being an active listener. Listening requires more from you than just waiting for a person to finish speaking so that you can jump in and add your thoughts. Active listening is the process of taking the time to understand what a person is saying and how they are saying it.
For example, while addressing concerns surrounding a loved one’s substance use, the loved one in question may snap back, “I don’t need any help. Just drop it.” If you are to take those words at face value, important information might be missed. Why is this person angry? Is it because they feel offended at the notion of needing help because they truly do have everything under control, or are they defensive due to shame and uncertainty surrounding this subject?
To resolve this ambiguity, an effective active listener does not make assumptions, but rather they make this confusion known and attempt to reach a higher level of understanding. One method to approach these situations is to utilize reflective listening and “I” statements, where you express genuine interest and engagement with your conversation partner while seeking more information.
In this conversation example illustrated above, you could respond, “I hear that you don’t want any help right now with your substance use, and you don’t wish to talk about it, but I notice that you seem upset. Could you tell me a bit more about why that is?” By rephrasing what your loved one has said, you are showing them that you are listening carefully to what they are saying and that your question is rooted in the genuine desire to learn more rather than ignorance.
Rephrasing and “I” statements are also important strategies for avoiding blame and accusations. For example, in the ongoing example, it is important to examine the difference between two different responses to your loved one’s assertion that they do not need help.
In the first case, you might tell your loved one, “Really, you think you don’t need help? It’s obvious you have a problem, and you just don’t want to address it.” In the second case, you might say instead, “You mentioned that your substance use isn’t something you want help with or want to talk about. I wanted to bring it up because I have noticed some differences in your behavior and I am concerned because I care about you. We don’t have to talk about it right now, but it is important to me that we take some time to talk about this.”
The first case might come off as accusatory and insensitive and is more evidently derived from anger rather than concern. This type of statement may escalate the situation into a screaming match or, on the contrary, may lead to your loved one shutting down completely as a way of escaping the situation.
The second case frames your concerns as observations rather than accusations and leads with care and concern rather than anger. While you may not always receive the response you want, no matter how calm and collected you are, you greatly improve your chances when you can remember these active listening strategies.
Identifying and Avoiding Unhealthy Patterns
While active listening is a strong start to building healthier communication patterns in your family, many other things can become obstacles in your conversations. Making assumptions rather than seeking clarification can lead to misunderstandings and unproductive discussions. Attempting to multitask during a conversation can indicate a lack of interest and limit comprehension and retention.
Making conversations overly serious can put everyone on edge and precludes the use of humor, which is an important tool in promoting creative problem solving and group cohesion. Seeking to please everyone rather than working together to generate compromises can lead to some people feeling unheard and unvalued.
Every family can work on their communication, especially when unhealthy dynamics, such as addiction, have been reinforced over the course of years. This does not mean, however, that these old habits need to last forever. Most families need and can benefit from professional help with communication when addiction is present.
If you are having trouble talking to your loved one about their substance use, you are not alone. It is not a moral failing, and it does not make you a bad person. Like any other skill, it takes practice, and sometimes it can be helpful to have someone accompany you on that journey. That is why Family-Centered Services seeks to treat the entire family system rather than just the individual struggling with substance use. If substance use is starting to affect the relationships, communication, and quality of life in your family, FCS can offer support throughout the process for everyone involved with individual and family therapy, case management, and intervention services. You can take the first step toward getting your family back by calling (509) 991-5822. Our staff is eager to get to know your family and offers individualized services based on your family’s specific needs.