If you have a loved one with a substance use disorder, you have no doubt been frustrated by their unwillingness or inability to change their behavior, their reluctance to seek help, or their refusal to even discuss their problem. You may have encouraged them to get help or asked them about their substance use and either been stonewalled or met with hostility. The important thing to understand is that addiction feels like a trap and yet people often feel threatened when someone tries to help them escape it.
Furthermore, people struggling with substance use disorders are often extremely sensitive to judgment or criticism, so your well-meaning encouragement may feel like an attack. Although it may sound counterintuitive, the best way to be more persuasive is often to improve your listening skills. People open up to good listeners and then real communication becomes possible. The following are some core skills to practice when talking to a loved one with a substance use issue.
The first point is to actually pay attention when someone is speaking to you. We all think we can multitask and listen to someone while looking at memes or responding to texts on our phone, but if you do that while someone is talking to you, the message you’re sending is, “I don’t care about what you’re saying.” What’s more, you’re not actually listening because your attention is jumping back and forth between two tasks and you inevitably miss things or don’t fully process what you hear.
You may feel like they aren’t saying anything terribly important, but listening to the small things indicates you are also willing to listen to bigger things. And if your loved one does want to talk about their substance use, they might not go directly at it. If you give a conversation your full attention and give it time to develop, you may be surprised what you learn.
The next point is to reflect back what they say. In other words, give a short summary of what they’ve told you as you understand it. This will probably start with something like, “So what you’re saying is…” This serves several purposes. First, it indicates that you have actually been listening and thinking about what the person is telling you. It shows you’re engaged in the conversation and really trying to understand, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
It also helps prevent misunderstandings. We typically assume that what we say is pretty transparent, since we already know what we mean. We also assume we understand what someone else has said until we see evidence to the contrary. Reflecting back is a way to check that you received a clear signal. You will probably be surprised how often you reflect back and hear the other person say, “That’s not really what I meant.” The sooner you identify and correct these mismatches, the better you will communicate.
The third point is to ask, “What’s that like?” This is typically a question for when things are getting a bit more serious. As with reflecting, this question indicates that you are genuinely trying to understand your loved one’s perspective. Perhaps more importantly, it indicates your willingness to suspend judgment. It’s the opposite of giving your opinion or giving advice, which is typically the last thing they want to hear.
The fourth point is to validate what you hear. It’s important to distinguish between validation and approval. When you validate something someone tells you, you’re not saying they did the right thing; you’re just saying that you can see how someone under those particular circumstances would have responded in that particular way. Validation is an attempt to empathize with actions you don’t necessarily agree with. Again, this is about suspending judgment and seeing things from your loved one’s perspective.
Finally, try to understand your loved one’s ambivalence. In some ways, this is the hardest part to grasp for someone who has never struggled with addiction. From the outside, it’s obvious that drugs and alcohol are taking a serious toll on your loved one’s life and that they should get help, but from their perspective, the question isn’t so black-and-white.
While some people genuinely want to quit but feel trapped, most people feel ambivalent. They get something from drugs and alcohol, even if drugs and alcohol take a lot in return. It could be that substance use is the only thing that helps them cope with a trauma or moderate the symptoms of a mental health issue. They may see quitting as depriving them of their only means of relief.
Alternatively, they may be getting something else out of it—perhaps a sense of belonging or identity. It could be that they don’t know any other way to experience joy. When you press them to get help, they may just feel like you’re trying to take something important away from them; not that you’re trying to save them.
It’s crucial to understand the ways your loved one is tangled up. Making any change is hard and it’s even harder when you feel like you have to sacrifice something important. Understanding their ambivalence helps you understand what’s holding them back and it also helps you understand the motivations that might be pulling them towards recovery.
If you’re not making any progress encouraging your loved one to get help, it could be that you’re not really listening. Like any skill, listening takes practice. It’s not easy to put aside your own opinions and try to understand someone else’s perspective, but it’s crucial for authentic communication.
At Hired Power, we work with families to help get their loved ones into treatment and enable them to have a lasting recovery afterwards. We offer services like case management, interventions, sober travel, and recovery assistants. To learn more about our services, call us today at 714-559-3919.
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