Talking So They Will Listen

You’ve been worried for years; you’ve tried talking, asking, and sometimes it has perhaps even felt like begging or threatening….still, your words seem to fall on deaf ears. Why is it so hard to get a person with a substance use disorder to listen and follow through? It seems so logical to quit drinking or drugging…and yet they continue. Is there anything that can be done to reach them?

We all have our own “language” – that way of talking and listening that seems to work best for each of us. Think about your person of concern…are they highly intellectualized and great at debating, a person often in deep thought or who has excellent cognitive problem solving skills? Or are they someone who likes to see the vision and prefers hands on demonstrations, someone who is an intense reader and likes to see charts and graphs when considering concepts? Alternatively, is your loved one “a person of few words”, tending to be very quiet or absent in conversations? Before hiring a professional interventionist, consider trying some strategies to speak the psychosocial language of your person of concern. Keep in mind that addiction is a very complex process that involves much more than simply responding logically in order to truly resolve a substance use disorder, but starting with compatible communication is a very important first step.

Some of us are more visual communicators and learners, and pictures truly speak thousands of words to us. These types of communicators are the “show me, let me show you” people. They like to use pictures when talking, see things first hand, are often saying “look at this”, and can easily point out even minute differences in situations. If this describes your person of concern, consider using lots of descriptive adjectives when talking with him or her. Visibly show your emotions in your facial expressions as opposed to trying to conceal your feelings, and talk in person face-to-face with eye contact. Describe the impact of the drinking or drugging in visual detail, such as “I see our daughter with tears on her face more often now because she is scared when you drink”, or “I look at our family at dinner and I can see the fatigue and anxiety in the way we sit”. Try to paint the picture of what your worries look like, creating an image – “I pace back and forth feeling scared, and keep listening for the sound of your car coming home, constantly looking out the window.” Consider writing a few carefully worded paragraphs inside a card and giving it to him or her; show them photographs of “then and now”. Persons with substance use disorders often truly cannot “see” the images and impact; gently and respectfully help them by using visual communication.

Others of us don’t need to “see” so much, and are thinkers, quite good at debating and talking. These types of communicators like to have discussions, think about facts, and often have a need to know “why”. They are content with reading the news, may not need to “see in order to believe”, and often take intellectual approaches to solutions. If this describes your person of concern, consider very carefully the words you choose! This person likely is already analyzing their response to you before you have even finished speaking, so be very selective in choosing non-argumentative words and avoiding accusations. Try using lots of sentences that start with “I” instead of “You” to help reduce defensiveness, watch out for accusations and debate-inducing comments, and talk about how You feel and about Your worries (there is less to argue with if it is coming from a focal point about your worries and concerns). For example, instead of saying: “You are insensitive and don’t care about how I am affected when you stay out late at night,” try saying: “I am scared to death that I will lose you and I spend the whole night worrying when you are not home” – the concerning behavior is still addressed, but it is harder to argue because you are discussing your experience.

Runners and Freezers. Some of us tend to run away from communication, especially conflict. Do you find yourself often saying to your person of concern: “Why won’t you just talk to me? Tell me what is wrong. Please just talk with me about this instead of shutting down”? Trying to talk with this type of communicator can be exasperating and exhausting. Whereas previously scientists believed that there were only the two reactions of fight or flight, we now know that there are actually three primary reactions to danger or stress: fight, flight, or freeze. If your person of concern tends to take off out the door (or into the bottle) when you try to talk, or tends to completely become silent and still except for an occasional “I don’t know,” then you probably have a Runner or a Freezer. The trick to building a bridge with Runners and Freezers is to be ultra-sensitive in your word choices and your tone, and tread very softly. This is hard to do; most likely your feelings and what you’d like to say seem like full volume, multi-dimensional events inside of you! Try venting to a friend or processing in a journal before talking to your person of concern; lift some weights, go for a brisk walk, do some deep breathing rounds and calming meditations – do whatever helps soothe your intensity as you carefully select words to help convey the seriousness of the situation in a conversation (not lecture) that is easier for the person to engage in with you. The topic at hand is intense and intimidating all by itself…make sure you are able to use a vocabulary that is both honest and gentle simultaneously, and include lots of affirmations about how important he or she is to you. Try saying words that reflect specifically on the drinking or drugging as its own entity, instead of the person and his/her character. “I want to help figure out how to loosen the grip that drinking has on the person I love”, or “I feel so sad because it seems like alcohol has become this dark cloud that tries to hide the amazing dad that you are.”

Finally, make sure you remember to listen. Sometimes there is much being communicated that we miss, because we were listening for something else. Rumi, the Persian scholar, reminds us that “the quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.” Listen very carefully to the meaning of the words, facial expressions, and movements that your person of concern is exhibiting. What, beyond the words, is being communicated back to you when you speak? What is being “said” to you when you are patiently sitting and listening?

These are just a few of the types of communicators and some basic strategies to use. Recovery is complex but not impossible. Start with taking deep breaths and try some fresh approaches, and remember that it is equally as important to take good care of yourself, as well. Restore Interventions provides very carefully tailored interventions that will speak to the “language” of your person of concern, and I am always happy to provide a complimentary consultation, share a few suggestions, or just lend an ear.

Feel free to call me – Patty Stetson, CCS, CAI-II, 919-757-6397.

Interested in a 3-part Class on Talking So They Will Listen? Restore Interventions will be offering this class again in the Fall 2018. There will be two different sections – one for talking with adults and one for talking with your adolescents. Classes and coaching are also available privately for persons who prefer to meet individually. Please send me an email if you would like to receive details about this or any of the other services provided by Restore Interventions: Patty@RestoreInterventions.com

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"When I is replaced with We, even Illness becomes Wellness."