Tips for better conversations

When your loved one is drinking too much or using drugs it’s easy to start saying negative things or blaming each other. These simple communication tips will help to keep your conversations calmer and more positive.

Watch and listen for green lights

Imagine there are traffic lights in conversations to tell you when to stop or go.

The light is green when your loved one is engaged with you, willing to listen and be constructive.

The light is red when your loved one is shouting, swearing, staying silent or not listening.

Red lights are frustrating, especially when you really want to see change.

But if you ignore red lights you may end up fighting, saying things you regret and no closer to positive change.

If you get a red light, it’s best to let the conversation go. But let your loved one know you want to pick it up at a later time.

Ask open questions

Open questions are ones where there is no “yes” or “no” answer.

For example, “What was the best thing about your day?" is an open question but, "Did you have a good day?" isn’t (because you can answer yes or no).

Open questions encourage people to open up in conversations. They also help you understand what is going on for the other person.

Some open questions you could try are:

  • What are some of the things you like about drinking/using drugs? (starting with positives can help to build trust)

  • What things do drinking/using drugs get in the way of?

  • What are the things that make you want to drink/use?

  • What worries you the most about not drinking/using drugs?

Be patient and give your loved one time to think and to respond.

Use "I statements"

"I statements" are a way to say how you feel without making the other person defensive.

They can help your loved one hear what you have to say and understand how their actions affect you and other people.

To use "I statements" build your sentences like this:

  • I feel (say how you feel)

  • When (describe their behaviour in a non-judgemental way)

  • Because (explain how the behaviour affects you or other people)

Here’s an example:

  • I feel really worried

  • When you don’t come home at night

  • Because I’m scared that you’re in danger

You can also use "I statements" to say positive things:

  • I feel really happy

  • When you’re home in time for tea

  • Because me and the kids like having you around

Using "I statements" may feel awkward at first. With a bit of practice, it can become a natural part of how you talk in your family.

Avoid using "I statements" when someone is drunk, high, coming down or hungover. Wait for those "green light" moments.

Practise active listening

Sometimes the more you try to make someone see your point of view, the more they shut down.

Listening has the opposite effect. The more you listen, the more people open up.

Often when we think we’re listening we’re actually judging, disagreeing or not concentrating as we’re thinking about our response.

Try to be present and do your best to hear what your loved one is saying without judging them. You can also give cues that you’re paying attention, like nodding, leaning forward and maintaining eye contact.