One of the things we humans are really good at is language. We’re pretty unique among creatures in communicating incredible amounts of information to each other through our words. Language has helped us survive and thrive as a species, as it has brought us together and helped us work as a team to do things like hunt, build communities, and protect one another.
And the way we speak to one another is one of our most powerful tools for reinforcement, both positive and negative. “That’s a beautiful thing you did!” … “What the hell were you thinking?” Language can lift us up and it can crush our spirits. It is also a major way we stay connected emotionally. So the understanding here? Communicating effectively and staying connected is a critical ingredient in someone during the process of change. The words we choose to use can support positive changes, clarify expectations, convey understanding and empathy and help shift ambivalence. Or they can do the opposite of all these things!
Often in the process of dealing with substance issues, communication has actually deteriorated in a family…lots of yelling, silence, backing each other into corners etc. We use the metaphor of traffic lights to highlight what you are seeing when you are trying to communicate with another person. When communication is constructive, it is an invitation to keep moving forward, keep talking. Often however, when things are not going well, you are more likely to see red (or at least yellow) lights from the other person. If your goal is to have a constructive conversation it is critical to observe traffic rules, don’t just jam through that red light!
In this context, learning new communication approaches and skills is important! Here are four steps to make your communication style work better for you.
- Step 1: Communication – What’s the point?
Spend some time thinking through what it is you hope to have happen through a communication. Try to anchor your goals in your larger values and what feels important like, feeling connected, be loving, being heard, developing more respect, or keeping them safe.
- Step 2: Determine the Direction
One of the main reasons conversations get off track is that they start from a “reaction” rather than a well-thought out road-map of the routes you hope to take and where you hope to end up (i.e., some agreement, more closeness, a resolution to a conflict). Having multiple routes to get to your end-point increases the odds that you will actually get there!
- Step 3: Prepare to Fail (and Try Again!)
Remember that many conversations don’t get anywhere for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you stepped on an unforeseen landmine, or maybe they were just having a bad day and couldn’t hear you. Preparing yourself for some bumps in the road helps you feel like you have the energy and ability to keep trying.
- Step 4: Strive for collaboration and steer clear of confrontation.
There is very clear evidence that confrontation pushes in exactly the opposite direction than you’d like to go; especially with teens. Part of a teenager’s job is to learn to hear their own voice, so shutting them down is not so helpful (though their voice might be obnoxious). Collaboration does not mean soft-pedaling, not being direct, or not expressing your own thoughts and feelings (which can be done by expressing yourself AND asking for their input/reaction). It DOES mean coming from a place that accepts that the other person has reasons that make sense to them, has motivation to move in a direction, and may be ambivalent or disagree with things that are important to youWhat are some other things you can do to increase collaboration? First, listen – by definition when you listen you are being collaborative. This does not mean you agree, just that you have heard the other person. Then offer information or state you side of the conversation in a way that allows the other to listen as well. And, be mindful of your triggers for going into reactive mode (e.g., “when his tone gets nasty I just want to get nasty back”) and develop tools/strategies to take a step back/zoom out.
Working on how you communicate isn’t very easy, and takes a lot of practice. And, learning how to harness such a powerful tool can help you influence your loved one’s change process tremendously.