If you care about someone struggling with with their use of alcohol or other substances (or even behaviors like overeating or spending), odds are you have lots you wish you could say about the problem you are observing. Have you wanted to say to your husband, “you know, drinking this often is probably adding to your depression” but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to deal with his response? Have you wanted to tell your daughter, “the evidence is in, cigarette smoking kills…why don’t you just quit already?!” but you stop yourself because you have had that conversation a million times and she just shuts down and avoids you for the next month. Way too often, conversations go off track when we offer feedback or observations that we think should be helpful… our efforts often backfire.

Don’t despair or give up! There are several communications strategies that you can use to improve your ability to engage your loved on in a conversation about your concerns. And there is one specifically geared toward helping you offer information that you think might be helpful, but are worried your loved one does not want to hear for whatever reason, and there may be many (e.g., shame, guilt, or ambivalence about this issue, or simply disagreeing with you!).

The Information Sandwich

The “information sandwich” technique is a three-step process for making information (the contents of the sandwich) palatable for the other person. By layering information between asking permission and checking back or clarifying after, “sandwiching” helps the person receive it, take it in, and feel empowered to use it.

  1. Asking permission – This conversational equivalent of knocking on the door before you enter has several benefits. First, by asking permission to give information, you help the other person make a fundamental motivational shift: you allow him to invite you in. Consider your interactions with people: if someone shows up at your house unexpectedly, it’s a different proposition than when you have asked for the company. In the latter case, you can prepare and arrange things in a way that is comfortable for you. You can give your loved one a similar courtesy in conversation. Asking permission is one way to make sure the you loved one is somewhat open to you proceeding with the content of your discussion. It enhance their sense of safety and control, plus, it honors his independence by giving him a choice. This may seem like a small point, but it can have a profound effect on the conversation when your loved one feels like he is a participant rather than a passive or reluctant recipient of your words—this is the difference between talking at and talking with. This spirit of collaboration is fundamental to motivational therapies, and is equally powerful in conversations. Last, asking permission increases the likelihood that your loved one will actually be listening when you say what you are hoping to say.
  2. Providing information – Permission granted, you get to relate the information or feedback you are hoping to share. Here are a few tips:
    • If you are making a suggestion to change something, like a behavior. Provide a variety of options to achieve the goal (e.g., if you needed help to stop drinking you could talk to your doctor, your friend Joe, or our minister).
    • Whenever possible, it helps to offer more than one good option as it’s harder to reject multiple options wholesale. Giving a person options puts them in the position to weigh the pros and cons of each rather than simply say “no.”
    • Offer; don’t impose. By the same logic of asking permission, your loved one will more likely hear, appreciate, and use information that is offered rather than forced on him.
    • Allow disagreement. As much as possible, leave room for your loved one to not accept or agree with the information you are offering. By asking permission and providing options you better the chances that he will, but it’s still his right to disagree. Collaborators don’t tell each other what to do; they resolve it together. Allowing for disagreement means the conversation doesn’t depend on agreement to go forward or, conversely, come to a screeching halt every time you disagree.
  3. Checking back or clarifying – The top layer of the sandwich helps your loved one process the information and remain open to the discussion. Essentially, you want to know how the information was received: whether your loved one understood the information or feedback, whether it was digestible or emotionally acceptable—or did he get too mad, hurt, or sad to take in what you said?—and so on. For example:
    • “Does that make sense to you?”
    • “I just wanted to check back about…”
    • “I’m not sure I said that very clearly…”

Research shows that family influence is one of the biggest predictors of entering treatment for substance use problems. If you are concerned about your loved one and see things in his/her behavior your would like to discuss or have suggestions that you think might be helpful, don’t give up trying to engage them. It can however be difficult, so learning, and then using communication skills will help you succeed.