Listening Through the Holidays

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Listening Through the Holidays


As the holidays approach, many people find themselves facing tricky or down right difficult interpersonal situations. Maybe you are worried about your brother and get mad at him for always getting drunk at the family Christmas party. Maybe you are worried about a friend, who you know is trying to stay sober and is facing a series of holiday parties where everyone gets really drunk. Maybe you have been through alot with your child who has been struggling with substances and feel worried about seeing them over the holiday’s. Maybe you are worried about your mother who seems to be drinking more now that your dad died and you know the holidays will be especially difficult. The list of maybe’s goes on and on.

It’s completely understandable that your first impulse may be to just tell you loved that they need to cut it out and just start taking care of themselves. Or tell them that maybe they should just not go to any holiday parties where they will be at risk. Avoidance is a good strategy isn’t it? It’s also understandable that you want to avoid talking about your concerns altogether and hope that by January 2nd you can just pretend like nothing happened. Unfortunately, these strategies tend to not go so well. The direct confrontation or advice giving can lead to defensive shutdowns or worse, uncomfortable arguments. Avoiding talking at all can lead to unaddressed tension and worry in you and possibly other bad outcomes because expectations are not adequately laid out.

Substance use is hard to talk about, it’s a messy topic. People can get defensive (usually because they are embarrassed or ashamed), avoid (aren’t there better things to be talking about than how much I drink?!?) and shut down (maybe if I’m silent you will just drop it). There are in fact ways to talk about the problem or your concerns that will improve your odds of actually having a real conversation and maybe even helping the person you are worried about!

Use Open-Ended Questions

Interesting, if you start a conversation with open ended questions and are willing to listen to the answers you get, you may find that you can actually have a conversation about difficult topics. If you begin a difficult conversation with an open-ended question, instead of a closed one you can get the ball rolling which can give you more room to move than you might imagine. Open ended questions call for some elaboration, that can’t be answered with one word response like yes or no. For example, asking someone “do you think you drink too much” is likely to result in a closed response of “no I don’t” (and not necessarily because they think they don’t have a problem!). Open-ended questions ask for an explanation on the other person’s part…like “what concerns you most about going into this party?” or…“what would you like to be different over the holidays this year?” They invite a bit more in-depth description and set a tone of collaboration. This type of question is likely to get a response that increases the back and forth, and gives you information to continue forward with further conversation.

Open-ended questions should be inviting information (from them), not suggesting information (from you). You might be surprised at how much people will offer if they don’t think they are going to be scolded or talked out of their position. And if they disclose they use alcohol to connect socially, or to help them sleep or to reduce stress, well then you can start to explore whether there are other ways to address those issues.

Try Active Listening

Then comes the hard part, listening before you jump into giving your opinion or offering advice. Try to stay in something called active listening mode for a while. Try reflecting back or restating some or all of what you think the person talking to you said. Your reflection can simply restate the words you heard (“you can’t imagine staying sober while everyone else is drinking”), or it may reflect the feeling in the words (“it sounds like you are stressed by all the parties you have to go to”). Reflections are statements, not questions (which can slow down or redirect the other person) and they are helpful in making sure you actually do understand what the other person is saying—and, if you get it wrong, they send the message that you are trying. The simple effort of trying to understand where another person is coming from goes a long ways toward reducing defensiveness and creating an atmosphere of connection and collaboration. Reflecting is not necessarily agreeing, but it is being willing to hear how the other person sees things, instead of immediately countering. Asking open-ended questions and following with reflections can help you engage the other person in a conversation that might otherwise end with “no”.

You can also work on listening for the positives. Communication can easily become all about what’s wrong. Noticing what’s going right and explicitly acknowledging it can change everything: it puts some balance back in the conversation, holds a positive connection, and keeps you moving forward. How? Affirming statements reduce defensiveness, which helps when you get to tougher issues (what’s not going so well). They also provide direction, increase self-esteem and reinforce positive behaviors. Affirmations are not general cheerleading (“you’re so great I know you will make the right decision”, which is more general. Affirmations refer to something specific, like (“I can tell you have been thinking about this issue”).

Other communication skills such as offering understanding statements, like “I know everyone will be having a few cocktails, I imagine it would be hard not to drink.” A little bit of empathy goes a long way towards creating willingness to continue talking.

About the Author:

Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires. She co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change with Drs. Foote and Kosanke. Together they also contributed to a user-friendly workbook for parents: The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use. In collaboration with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Dr. Wilkens and the CMC team is developing a national parent training program (the Parent Support Network) to provide parent coaches to families in need of support through a free hotline. Prior to these ventures, Dr. Wilkens was the Project Director on a large federally-funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant examining the effectiveness of motivational interventions in addressing the problems associated with binge drinking among college students. She is regularly sought out by the media to discuss issues related to substance use disorders and has been on the CBS Morning Show, Katie Couric Show, and Fox News as well as a variety of radio shows including frequent NPR segments such as the People’s Pharmacy and The Diane Rehm Show.