How do I best talk to my loved one about the impact of their use?

  It makes sense that effectively communicating the negative effect of your loved one’s use on you and others might help motivate him or her to cut back or stop using. But it’s hard to know what and how to communicate so your loved one actually hears you.  Years of disappointment, anger, worry, and frustration take over and attempts to approach the subject of their substance turn into fruitless arguments. Fortunately, there are communication skills that you can practice that make it more likely that your loved one will hear your message. If you’ve read the book Get Your Loved One Sober, you’ll recognize the acronym PIUS, which is used to help you remember the communication skills. I think PIUS is a really helpful acronym, but I like to include an additional letter to the acronym, so that it is now PIOUS (I think the “O” in PIOUS adds a very important communication skill). PIOUS stands for the following skills:  Positive phrasing, using “I” statements, Offering to help, including an Understanding statement, and being Specific. Let’s take a look at each of these skills:

Positive phrasing – say what you want versus what you don’t want

  • Positive Phrasing: Positive phrasing refers to asking for what you want versus what you don’t want. It also refers to noting the positive steps a person is taking. People tend to respond better when we note the positive things they are doing rather than all the things they are doing wrong. Remember the saying, “You draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Also, 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 isn’t clear on what to do instead. Letting a person know the action we want to see them do helps eliminate this confusion.

    • Example of Positive Phrasing:

      • Old communication: “I really hate it 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?!”

      • New communication: “I really enjoy our family dinners when you are sober. I would really like it if you came home right after work one day during the week so we can all eat dinner together as a family.”

I statements – Focus on describing your feelings and requests

  • Using “I” statements: Own your feelings and requests. Instead of saying “You always make me feel bad,” say something like, “I feel anxious when you are out late drinking.” They are your feelings and you have every right to have them. People also tend to respond better when you express feelings and make requests using “I” statements vs. “you” statements.

    • Example of Using “I” Statements.

      • Old Communication: “You make me so angry when you stay out all night drinking with your buddies!!”

      • New 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 could call me to let me know when you are going to stay out at night so I don’t worry so much.”

Offer to help – Offer concrete ways you can support your loved ones sobriety

  • Offer to Help: Consider how you can include a genuine offer of help in your communication. This can be an opportunity to help your loved one do something to support his/her sobriety. It is important that your offer of help be genuine and be something that you can actually do. It should also be something that you are willing to do and that supports sobriety and not use. Be prepared that your loved one may not accept your offer to help. You can extend the branch to save them from the quicksand, but it is up to them to grab hold.

    • Example of a statement that includes an Offer to Help.

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

      • New Communication using an Offer to Help: “I’m glad that you don’t want to drive while you’ve been drinking and I want to find a way that you can do that works for both of us. I’m willing to call you a cab or give you the phone number of some cab companies when you call me to pick you up late at night.”

Understanding statement – Communicate that your understand your loved ones feelings and perceptions

  • Understanding Statement: This one can be tough. You’re angry, disappointed, sad, or frustrated with your loved one’s use. The understanding statement does not refer to understanding their use, but understanding their 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 their eyes. The aim is to communicate empathy, love, and support. This can be really challenging when you are feeling upset or resentful, but with practice it can make a huge difference.

    • Example of statement that uses an Understanding Statement.

      • Old Communication: “I really hate it 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?!”

        • New Communication: “I know your job is stressful and that going to happy hour helps you unwind from the day. What if I were to pick you up from work on Friday and we could go get a massage together?” [This statement is 2 for 1: It expresses understanding about the person’s stressful work situation and contains an offer to help in the form of suggesting a sober activity to help the person de-stress!]

Specific – Clearly and specifically state what you want, how you feel, and what you will do

  • 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. Using generalities,being vague, or using lots of words can be confusing. It’s hard for the other person to know what part of the communication to respond to. Getting straight to the point and expressing exactly what you want leaves less room for confusion. Own what you want, how you feel, and what you will do. Leave little ambiguity for your loved one, so he/she can clearly understand what you are saying.

    • Example of Being Specific.

      • Old Communication: “The other day I was so stressed out. I had to take care of the kids, do all the cleaning, and cook dinner for the family dinner. I just feel like I’m taking on so much when you’re not around. I just don’t know what to do. Maybe you could just stop using and help me out sometimes.”

      • New Communication: “I feel stressed out when I have to cook dinner and look after the kids at the same time. I would like you to take the kids to the park so I can make dinner more quickly and so we can all be less stressed at dinner.”

When you work on communicating in a new manner, we highly recommend you pick only one or two skills to practice at a time. We typically recommend that people pick one to practice until they get good at it, before moving onto another communication skill. You may want to start out with changing your communications around topics that are less difficult or prone to conflict. It can also be easier to start with someone other than the loved one who is using, or to practice the skill with your loved one on a topic that is not related to his/her use.

Ways to practice:

Here’s an exercise to help you practice the PIOUS communication skills. Remember, pick just one or two communication skills to practice before moving onto the other skills. With practice you will be able to communicate in a more effective new way with your loved one. With practice you may also feel a sense of pride in your accomplishment.

  • Step 1: Write out the way you typically communicate in the situation. Think of a typical interaction that you have with someone that doesn’t go well (maybe it leads to conflict, you don’t get what you want, or you leave the interaction feeling confused). Or, pick an upcoming situation where you will need to make a request or express your feelings (e.g., an upcoming teacher-parent meeting where you express your concerns about your child’s grades, talking with a friend about a stressful situation you’re having, or a conversation with your addicted loved one about an upcoming evening with your extended family). Write out how you would usually express yourself in this situation.

  • Step 2: Rewrite your communication using one or two of the skills. Now, pick 1 or 2 of the communication skills and rewrite your communication using the skill you selected. You may want to do a few rewritings so you have options to choose from.

  • Step3: Practice the new communication skill in real life. Go practice the new communication skill in that situation! After you practice, take some time to think about how the interaction went. What went well? What didn’t go so well? How might you change your communication to make your part of the interaction go more smoothly, better express yourself, or improve it in other ways? Consider doing steps 1 and 2 with the situation that just occurred.


[This post is week two of our ten-week, free email course on how to help an addicted loved one. If you've gotten here from somewhere else, you can sign up here]