Effective Communication Skills: How to Do It

In the last post, Communicating with a Loved One Who is Addicted, we introduced you to Sally and Jonathan. Here we will continue to discuss some effective communication skills that Sally (or you) can learn to improve her (your) relationship and communication.

1. Positive Phrasing

The idea here is to ask for what you want rather than what you don’t want. Positive phrasing also includes recognizing the positive steps a person is taking. This skill is based on the idea that people tend to respond better when we acknowledge the positive things they are doing rather than focusing on all the things they are doing wrong.

Your attention and praise are powerful rewards. People tend to respond better when we tell them what we want them to do rather than telling them what to stop doing. Often, when we tell someone to stop acting a certain way, he/she does not understand what they should do instead. Letting a person know the action we want from them helps eliminate this confusion.

Example of Positive Phrasing:  Here’s an example of using positive phrasing to make a request. In this example, Jonathan has returned home late for family dinner and is quite tipsy.

Communication Breakdown: “You’re drunk again?! I can’t believe you’re drunk when I explicitly asked you not to be drunk around the kids. Did you go to happy hour with Steve again? I guess Steve is just more important than your kids!”

Effective Communication using Positive Phrasing: “I really enjoy our family dinners when you are sober. I would like you to come home right after work one day during the week so we can all eat dinner together as a family.

2. Use “I” statements

It is important to own your feelings and take responsibility for requests. Instead of saying “You always make me feel bad,” you can own your feelings by saying “I feel bad when you do that.” By changing the message from a “you” message to an “I” message, you take responsibility for your feelings, instead of blaming someone else for how you feel. These are your feelings and you have every right to have them!

In general, people tend to respond better when we express feelings and make requests using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Also, when we speak in terms of “you” statements, people can often feel blamed (even if we don’t intend to make them feel blamed) and may feel resentful or defensive about being told what to do.

Example of  “I” Statements. Jonathan arrived home in the morning, obviously hungover from a night of drinking with his friends. Sally has been up all night worried about Jonathan and waiting for him to call.

Communication Breakdown: “You’re a jerk! You went out all night drinking with your friends and didn’t call me. Do you like it when I worry and get angry?!”

Effective Communication using “I” Statements: “I feel angry and scared when you stay out all night with your friends. I would really like it if you would call me to let me know when you are going to stay out at night so I don’t worry so much.”

3. Offer to Help

Communications related to drug or alcohol use can be be an opportunity to help your loved one do something to support his/her sobriety. If you decide to make an offer to help, it’s important that it: 1) be genuine; 2) be something you can actually do; 3) be something you are willing to do; and 4) be something that supports sobriety instead of drug or alcohol use.

In making an offer to help, it’s also important that you prepare for the possibility that your loved one may refuse your offer. You can extend the branch to save them from the quicksand, but it is up to them to take it.

Example of a statement that includes an Offer to Help. In this example, Jonathan is out on the town with his friends again. He had a fight with the friend who drove to the bar, and now he wants to come home. Sally has just fallen asleep (exhausted from worry) and needs to be up early the next day. The phone rings:

Communication Breakdown: “I’m so sick and tired of picking you up from the bar at 2 in the morning!”

Effective Communication using an Offer to Help: “I’m glad that you don’t want to drive when you’ve been drinking. I want to find a way to help that works for both of us. I’m willing to call a cab for you or give you the numbers of some cab companies.”

4. Understanding Statements

This one can be really tough when you’re angry, disappointed, sad or frustrated with your loved one’s substance abuse. It can be difficult to offer understanding when you feel like your concerns aren’t being heard and you’ve tried so many times to get him/her to stop using.

This is important: the understanding statement is not about agreeing with or understanding your loved one's drug or alcohol use, but understanding his/her feelings or perceptions of a situation.

People are often more willing to listen to what you have to say if you try to understand their perspective. Using an understanding statement communicates that you are trying to see the world through his/her eyes. The intention is to communicate empathy, love and support. This can be hard to do when you are angry. However, most of us can still connect with the idea that we want to be loving even when we feel angry. This is one way to act loving and supportive, even if we don’t feel that way.

Example of a statement that uses an Understanding Statement. The day before, Jonathan promised Sally that he would come home straight after work so he could be on time for the family dinner (and hopefully not intoxicated). Unfortunately, he’s late and appears to have been drinking again.

Communication Breakdown: “I really hate how you show up drunk to our family dinners. Why do you have to go to happy hour and get wasted before we have dinner?!”

Effective Communication using an Understanding Statement: “I know your job is stressful and going to happy hour helps you unwind from the day. What if I were to pick you up from work on Friday, get pizza and then go to the park with the kids?”

(This statement both expresses understanding about the person’s stressful work situation and offers a sober activity to help the person de-stress.)

5. Be Specific

It helps to be specific about the behavior you want to see, how you feel and your actions. Sometimes we use generalities to communicate, or we use lots of words to avoid saying something difficult or to avoid being turned down. It’s especially important to be specific when you make requests. Instead of making general requests (“I’d like you to help more around the house”), make more specific requests that focus on exactly what you want to change (“I’d like you to take out the trash on Thursday nights.”).

When we speak in general terms or when we are vague, it’s hard for others to know how to respond. Getting straight to the point and expressing exactly what you want leaves less room for confusion. It’s okay for you to have feelings and to make requests. You will have better communication if you  own what you want, express clearly how you feel and state specifically what you will do.

Example of Being Specific. In this example, Sally is feeling stressed out and overwhelmed with all of her responsibilities (rightly so!) and she would like Jonathan to help out a bit more on the weekends. In the past, Jonathan has taken the kids to the park to give Sally a break from her parenting duties. He and the kids seem to really enjoy their time at the park, and Jonathan will not drink if he has to drive the kids anywhere.

Communication Breakdown:  “The other day I was so stressed out! I had to take care of the kids, do all the cleaning, and cook dinner. I just feel like I’m doing everything around here and you never help out. Maybe if you didn’t drink so much you could help around the house. I just don’t know what to do. Maybe you could stop drinking and help me out sometimes.”

Effective Communication Being Specific:  “I feel stressed out when I have to cook dinner and look after the kids. I would like you to take the kids to the park today so I can make dinner more quickly. Then, we will all be less stressed at dinner.”

(Often it’s the case that effective communications combine several of these strategies. In the example above, the communication also includes positive phrasing.)


In the next post, we will talk more about Tips for How to Use Effective Communication.