We have to acknowledge that any time drugs and alcohol enters the family, it’s usually a recipe for very poor communication. When you’re facing a problem of this magnitude, communication can turn negative in a hurry. Most of us will agree that trying to communicate with our clients may have seemed almost impossible before entering treatment. One thing I struggled with myself and often hear from families, is “What Do I Say”? Typically, the emotion of fear has us worried that we’ll say the wrong thing and the situation will only worsen or jeopardize the client’s recovery.
Thankfully, there are some effective communication tools for creating positive communication that can help alleviate those feelings of being afraid, nervous, helpless, or angry. Let’s look at some ways of communicating that produce better outcomes than you might expect or have experienced. Overall, we want to focus on practicing positive communication. Trust me; it can be the most powerful tool or skill you learn to use!
Listen, just Listen.
Good communication starts with listening, not listening for the purpose of giving advice, but simply listening. Your client is more likely to confide in you about what is really going on, if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. During the early days of my son’s drug treatment I was taught to respond with sounds of response or simple, short responses. Things like – Oh! Wow! Aah, that’s a bummer. Glad to hear it! And if I felt like I really needed to express my disagreement, I was told I could say something like - Really? Humm? This kind of communication takes practice and is very helpful when a discussion with your client is just not working. And yes, of course, there are times when more response is needed. But when we practice listening, really listening, we open the door to real communication. You might be thinking “But I can’t even trust my client anymore. They’re always lying just to get what they want.” We know. We are not suggesting that you become stupid and gullible, believing everything that they say, because most of the time they can be quite manipulative. We’re just suggesting that if you practice listening, in a different way, you open up the door for them to interact with you differently.
A Common Pitfall
A common pitfall in listening is the temptation to start mentally preparing your own response while your loved one is talking to you. Generally, it’s because you want to be sure that your words of wisdom are being heard and understood.
However, when we do that, we are really only half listening. Your client, and others, will notice that you’re being less receptive and the communication begins to break down. If we want others to listen when we speak, we must learn to listen when they speak. Those face to face conversations are where we can learn much more about what is going on. Remember, real communication is a two-way system. So, this is when active listening can be an important skill to use.
Practice Active Listening
As a teacher and counselor, I became familiar with and often used active listening skills in my work. What I learned when facing my son’s struggles with drugs is that I needed to apply those skills more than ever in our home. By actively listening, you send the message that they are important enough to have your undivided attention.
In simple terms, active listening means that you fully concentrate, understand, and respond to what is being said instead of being distracted. Steven Covey, the author of 7 Habits of People said it very well: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. When a family member is an active listener, it pulls out more of the information that you are seeking to find. Then you are better able to guide your loved one to deal with and solve problems for themselves.
Listen to Understand
Genuine understanding helps reduce defensiveness and promotes empathy toward your client’s situation. It doesn’t mean that you agree with him or like what they are doing, but it does show that you at least understand it or some of it.
Another way to listen with understanding is to use open ended questions such as, “How can I help you?’ instead of saying “Do you need help”? This offer of help also lets your client know that you are willing to collaborate on a solution. When you offer help in a non-judgmental way, and with a sense of understanding, you are planting the seed that help is needed in this situation.
Be Direct and Stay Calm
We’ve already mentioned that yelling, screaming or speaking in a critical tone really doesn’t work. Threatening or lecturing typically leads to your client withdrawing, sneaking around or lying. It is so much more important to stay calm, but direct, about your boundaries and what the consequences are.
Keep it Brief and Specific
When you’re angry or nervous, you often end up saying more than is necessary and your client gets very defensive. Instead, think ahead of time about what you want to say and be concise; Less gets you more. Also, be specific, because vague requests are often ignored or misunderstood.
Model Good Communication
Using “I” Statements gives you a model of communication that can be achieved in three parts. First, report your feeling in just three words “I feel sad, angry, hurt, scared, frustrated…Choose the feeling that describes your emotion. Then, fill in with what you think is creating that feeling. Example: “I feel scared when you come home all hours of the night. I can’t stop all those terrible scenarios from running through my head” as opposed to saying “You are so disrespectful when you think you can come in here anytime you want!” Do you have any idea what you’re putting me through?!” Using “I” statements, keeps the focus on YOU and stops you from making accusations. You’re also concentrating on how you feel, instead of your loved one’s behavior.
Be patient with yourself as you are trying to learn and practice new ways of communicating or simply trying to remain calm, amid the chaos. Remember, your tone of voice is actually more important than what you are saying. A gentle, neutral tone increases the chances that your client is actually listening. If your tone is good, sometimes it really won’t matter if you saying the right thing. For some, this is one of the hardest parts of positive communication to master.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Changing the way you communicate will take practice, but these positive communication skills will improve your interactions with everyone. Remember, positive communication comes easier when you are taking care of YOU. Getting rest, exercising, eating well, meditation or prayer, all contribute to your ability to be a good communicator. If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, communication is likely not to get any better. You have to establish some positive communication to open the door to helping your client. Substance abuse is a serious problem, so we hope you are open and willing to trying a different approach to communicating.