The way we talk to people about making changes in their lives has a huge impact on whether they will be open to our feedback. Whether you’re confronting a loved one about substance abuse, a destructive behaviour, or any emotionally charged issue, utilising positive communication can affect how you are heard.
Picture: Tina Mailhot-Roberge
This is true for therapists talking to clients, doctors talking to patients, and family members talking to a loved one they are concerned about. Luckily, there are very specific and effective ways to construct a communication so that it goes well and that both parties in the conversation feel respected and understood.
Even if there is not “full agreement” in the end, positive communication skills help move a conversation along effectively and work toward building a solid foundation of respect and a platform for increasingly meaningful exchanges in the future. These skills not only help to improve conversations about serious issues like substance use or destructive behaviours (like spending, gambling, or eating too much), they also help with the little conversations required for smooth family functioning, like simply talking about chores getting done.
When we say “positive communication skills,” we don’t just mean communicating with a tone of happiness. The goal is not to be a cheerleader, but rather to be effective and to build up connection, even when discussing difficult, emotionally charged issues. In other words, positive communication is about you feeling good about how you handled your approach to the subject and that you maintained and met your values and goals in the conversation. So, first, let’s review the seven guidelines to positive communication (Adapted from: Smith, J., & Myers, R. (2004). Motivating substance abusers to enter treatment: working with family members. New York: Guilford Press.)
Being brief has two meanings: keep it short and keep it on topic. When upset or angry, everyone can have a tendency to bring up lots of old issues in an effort to prove their current point. Stay focused on the topic of the moment (for example, “I want to have dinner with you when you are not drinking”) and resist tossing in a variety of other topics (“and you’re always showing up late and don’t bother to call”). Communications work best when they are very focused.
Again, this does not mean, “be nice and happy all the time.” It means stay away from accusations, name-calling, negative statements, and the like. These communications will just steer you off course and away from your goal. Even more importantly, ask for what you do want instead of what you don’t want (“I would like you to use the hamper” vs. “don’t leave a mess on the floor”). This can be difficult, and can take a fair bit of practice to get right, but can also make a world of difference. Consider whether you are framing things as negative admonishments, compared to a positive request or statement in every-day conversations as a way to build up this skill.
Address specific behaviours, specific incidents, and ask for something that is specific and measurable. The more clear you can be, the more likely you are to get what you want.
Label Your Feelings
Letting the other person know what you’re feeling can help break down some of the walls that are between you (“I feel stressed and disconnected from you when you’ve been drinking/when the house is a mess/etc.”).
Offer an Understanding Statement
For example, you might start by saying, “I can understand that you might feel…” You want to be heard, and this is a way for you to let the other person know that you hear and understand them, and it can help reduce defensiveness (“I know it’s hard to resist going out with your friends after work” or “I know you are rushed getting from football practice to dinner”).
Accept Partial Responsibility
Accept your role in this situation. We all play some role, so it’s important to find some way in which you contributed (“I know I really came down hard on you last week when I was at my wit’s end”). You don’t have to accept all the blame, but assuming some of the responsibility will definitely help.
Offer to Help
You’re making a request, so show them that you’re in this together! Offer how you can help them out (“Maybe tomorrow I could meet you somewhere for dinner or we could eat earlier if that helps” or “I put a hamper in your room so you don’t have to go downstairs”). If they aren’t the sole party who is responsible for action, they might be more likely to agree to change.
So, how do you put this all together? Carefully and with a lot of practice! It is often very helpful to start by writing what you might say, and seeing if you can hit all of the points (being brief and positive are really more global guidelines than specific points, but the other five can be specific sentences). Once you have written them all out and you feel comfortable that you’ve hit everything, put it in an order that makes sense and read it through out loud. Sometimes hearing what you’ve written, even if you’re the one doing the reading, will give you a better sense of how it will sound to someone else. While you’re reading, pay special attention to any spots that feel awkward, or make you feel defensive. Those are spots that you may want to iron out and re-write.
After you’ve read and edited your communication, it’s time to practice! Communication, like anything else that you do on a daily basis, becomes routine after a while. It’s hard to change the way you usually talk with people, and approaching someone to talk about a difficult subject may feel different than what you are used to. Consider reading what you’ve written to yourself in a mirror. Ask a friend or family member to listen and give you feedback. Really get familiar with it and feel comfortable with your intended communication before you try it live.
Finally, pick a time when tension is low, when both you and the person you’re talking with are feeling relatively calm, comfortable, and not under the influence of any substances. You may even want to read what you’ve prepared to them (instead of trying to recite it from memory). Showing them that you wrote it all out and are reading it will let them know you are really trying hard to communicate something. Additionally, when the pressure is on, you don’t want to forget half of what you intend to say or slip into old, ineffective communication patterns by mistake.
Afterwards, take a minute to review how it went. It’s no small feat to talk with someone about a difficult and potentially volatile subject. If you didn’t or weren’t able to stick to your intended plan of communication, consider what happened. Was there something in the planning? Was there a reaction that you didn’t expect? How can you try it differently next time? Use this experience to help make your next attempt even more successful.
A few extra communication tips:
- Avoid words like “but” and “however.” They tend to nullify anything you said before them, and can derail a good point that you’re trying to make. Try using more inclusive words like “and” or “at the same time.”
- You know the saying, “strike while the iron is hot?” In this case, it might be better to think “strike while the iron is cold.” When temperatures are high, it can be hard to stay calm and keep with your communication plan. Try to pick a time when everyone is calm.
- Just because it doesn’t go the way you want (maybe they said no to your request, or you both ended up returning to some old behaviour patterns), you can still walk away feeling successful. Try to think about what your goals are and what success might look like, even if the communication doesn’t go perfectly.
- If the other person isn’t using positive communication and starts to yell or go off topic, you can bring the conversation back by being a “broken record” and just coming right back to your points. The more you stick to what you came to do, the more likely you are to feel successful in the end.
As you make the shift to using positive communication skills, you might feel awkward and even a little stilted and silly. You will get better with practice and many people are so encouraged by the improved outcome of their conversations that they use these skills in other contexts. When someone is worried about a loved one’s behaviour, communication can become corrosive with worry and anger, and having some positive interactions can be very rewarding and relieving for everyone.
Dr Carrie Wilkens is the co-founder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change. Dr Wilkens specialises in motivational treatments and group psychotherapy, and has worked with traumatized populations in both individual and group modalities. Dr Wilkens’ expertise is regularly sought by the CBS Early Show; Fox News; Newsweek; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Huffington Post; and Psychology Today.
Dr Nicole Kosanke is the director of family services at the Center for Motivation and Change, where she specialises in working with family members of people abusing substances and in the assessment process for families and individuals with substance abuse issues. Dr Kosanke has been working in the research and clinical practice of substance abuse treatment for many years and is a regular blogger on the Huffington Post.
Dr Wilkens and Kosanke are co-authors of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, a compassionate and science-based family guide for navigating the addiction treatment world, understanding motivation and training in the use of CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) skills. These practical skills include self-care, positive reinforcement, positive communication, and staying connected in a constructive, positive way to help your loved one.
Find more skills for helping a loved one with substance abuse issues at The 20 Minute Guide.