How to Communicate with an Alcoholic
Communication is hard to do even when there are no major obstacles. Alcohol misuse can be a considerable obstacle, especially when figuring out how to communicate with an alcoholic. Depending on how long someone has had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), they may not be interested in talking. However, the more you can introduce the opportunity to get help, the better.
Below are some tips on how to communicate with an alcoholic.
Ask for Help
Your loved one needs to seek treatment to overcome their alcohol use disorder. But because you are affected by their AUD, you too can benefit from seeing a licensed therapist. You may even have mental health or substance use issues yourself. Or maybe you have enabled someone with an alcohol use disorder and need to learn how to stop.
A counselor can help you develop a plan of action for communicating with an alcoholic. If your loved one refuses to communicate or get treatment, your action plan may include intervention or implementing actions that make it hard for them to maintain their AUD.
For example, you may no longer give them money, food, housing, gas, rides, or anything else that makes it easier for them to misuse alcohol.
Your counselor can also teach you specific communication skills, like the ones below.
Pay Attention to What Your Body is Saying
Communication involves more than just talking to someone. Your body language matters, and it can confirm what you are saying or let someone know you aren’t being truthful. Eye rolls, crossed arms, or a lack of eye contact can tell someone as much as a hug or a smile. When communicating with an alcoholic, they, too, will notice your body language.
For a meaningful conversation, be open rather than closed. Sit facing your loved one and keep your arms open. Make eye contact. Use your body language to make the other person feel loved and welcomed unconditionally.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
While you don’t want to put yourself in their situation, you must understand alcohol use disorder before communicating. Educating yourself on the disease of addiction can give insight into why someone misusing alcohol behaves as they do.
You will learn how alcohol hijacks the brain and manipulates your loved ones into thinking they need alcohol to survive. They cannot see a way out even though they want out of their relationship with alcohol. Once you realize how alcohol affects the brain and decision-making, you can try more effective approaches to convince someone to seek treatment and stop drinking.
Even if you know everything there is to know about alcoholism, avoid coming across as a know-it-all. The person with an alcohol use disorder will resent you and tune you out.
Improve the Power of Your Words
Words are powerful. Some can be powerful in a negative way, like when you tell someone, “You should just be able to quit” or “you’re a junkie.”
If your conversations with someone with an alcohol use disorder are filled with shaming, blaming, name-calling, or any other harmful language, it’s no wonder they are not reaching out for help.
They believe what you say to them. For most people, it is easier to remember the negative comments someone says rather than the positive ones. They start repeating them in their heads and eventually believing them, which makes them think they can never be helped.
Replace negative statements with encouraging comments. Here are some examples:
Negative: “Why do you make such bad choices? Why can’t you be like your siblings? You’re a loser.”
Positive: “I am learning about alcoholism, and I think I understand why you make your own choices. You are a good person, and I’m worried about you. I think I know a way to break free of alcohol’s control. Let me help you.”
Negative: “You should get help before you drink yourself to death.”
Positive: “I care and worry about you. I want to help you find a solution to this problem. You deserve recovery.”
Negative: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Positive: “There is nothing to be ashamed of because alcoholism is a brain disease, just like other physical diseases. There is a way to heal.”
Let Them Be Heard
Everyone struggling with a problem wants to be heard and understood. Too often, when communicating with someone with an alcohol use disorder, a conversation can turn from friendly to aggressive in seconds.
Someone with an alcohol use disorder is always on the defensive. They think you are judging them, so they stay guarded. Anytime during the conversation, emotions can escalate into a heated argument. That is not helping your relationship.
Instead of continuing methods that aren’t working, try listening instead.
Listening means paying attention to what your loved one is saying and being able to reflect on their words, emotions, and more.
You will be surprised at how much you can learn from someone with an alcohol use disorder if you truly listen.
Create Healthy Boundaries
While listening to someone with an alcohol use disorder is essential, you do not have to endure abuse like name-calling, cursing, or threats. Establish healthy boundaries so everyone knows what is acceptable and what is not.
If the abuse goes beyond verbal and becomes physical, you must protect yourself. Call the police for help anytime you feel unsafe.
Healthy boundaries when it comes to communication should make it clear that you support someone getting help for their alcohol use disorder, and at the same time, you do not support them misusing alcohol. Therefore, avoid confusing someone with an alcohol use disorder. Don’t buy them alcohol one day and then get angry with them for continuing to drink alcohol the next day.
You have tried many things to communicate with an alcoholic, but nothing has worked. Now it is time to learn a better way. The good news is that you can start practicing healthy communication techniques today, and we can help. Give us a call or contact us for more information to find out how.
- Segal J, Smith M, Robinson L, Boose G. Nonverbal Communication and Body Language – HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org. Accessed October 5, 2022. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/nonverbal-communication.htm
- Hardee J. Is Addiction a Disease? Science Says Yes. Published May 19, 2017. Accessed October 5, 2022. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/brain-health/science-says-addiction-a-chronic-disease-not-a-moral-failing
Last medically reviewed October 5, 2022