8. Communicating to Connect


Here we’ll cover:

  1. How to think about conversations
  2. Understanding resistance
  3. Being an ally
  4. How to guide
  5. Conversation preparation

1. How to think about conversations

Myth: The “break through” conversation

When addiction is a point of tension, we can place a lot of hope in conversations we might have and rationale we might present, to “break through”; and cause the changes we want to see in someone else. This might be a familiar feeling, whether it’s substance use or some other habit you’d like to see in someone, like cleaning the kitchen!

We can spend a lot of time thinking about past conversations, conversations that we want to have, or plan to have in the future. Maybe this next one will be the one!

We know …. we’ve been there. (And imagine we’ll be there again, probably soon.)

Since we know real change happens over time, because new habits take a while to form and the brain needs time to heal to be able to rationalize effectively, we also know that it’s not this conversation or that one that’s going to make all the difference, but rather the ongoing connection and conversations over time that can slowly shift things.

This knowledge helps us slow down and step back from heated conversations and really focus on making each interaction a positive and helpful connection along the path to change.

So how do we keep conversations moving in a positive direction, even if they’re not reaching our desired end (today)?

Two conversation outcomes

Though we know it is not any one great debate or convincing argument that is going to make all the difference here, conversations can be powerful.

The power in a conversation on a good day is to set the seeds of change in motion and on a less good day is to reinforce negative emotions someone may already be prone to having. Know that we will all have both of these kinds of conversations, many times over, but that our goal is to be best prepare to have the former more often than the latter.

The ways we communicate, react, and interact matter, and one thing is for certain:

they can affect the people we’re communicating with.

Positively and negatively.

We all know what it’s like to be around someone whose heavy emotional or mental state can add weight to our own and we know what it’s like to be around someone whose positive presence brightens our day.

Dr. John Gottman, in his four decades of research, learned that when our facial expressions communicate contempt towards our intimate partner - something as simple as rolling our eyes and meaning it - our partner’s immune system is impacted and they are much more susceptible to illness, like colds and the flu, than other people!

While we can all get frustrated with the people we love most, we want to more often than not be contributing to the health of our loved one’s immune, and other, systems! That’s why it’s helpful to both reflect on conversations that have passed and practice the following proven tips to engage more effectively going forward.

2. Understanding resistance

We’ve likely all experienced times when someone tells us what to do when we haven’t asked for their input or direction, often at these times our response may be to resist the advice or suggestions.

Even when we do ask for advice, resistance is almost sure to rear its head if we have any sense that we - or our behaviors - are being judged.

That’s our self-protection kicking into gear. We’re humans with sensitive nervous systems and our systems tend to not feel safe if someone addresses behaviors they don’t agree with, without compassion for or understanding of what’s going on underneath those behaviors.

It feels like opposition (an enemy or an attacker) versus an ally.

So let’s keep compassion at the ready and opt to understand our loved ones more. Always.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but if a person is engaging in repeated behaviors like substance use they’re harming themselves.

Why would someone harm themselves?

Because they aren’t connected to their own value as a human being.

When we value something, we don’t repeatedly harm it.

We all need allies to remind us of our value when it’s lost on us, so here we practice thinking about how to become an unconditional positive ally.

That means even and especially when it’s challenging to do so.

3. Being an Ally

The Ally Manifesto

It might be helpful to distinguish what it means to be an ally from what it’s not.

As an ally…

When times are hard, we don’t shut people out or talk down to them. We don’t sit idly by, watching someone’s downward spiral, and we don’t tell them what to do.

And we don’t offer themselves as a doormat to be stepped on or pushed over.

Instead, we model what standing up looks like, even when gravity feels like an enemy.

We do this by meeting our loved ones where they are, and we know that today where they are may be different from yesterday or tomorrow.

We find them in the trenches and, without judgment, offer to walk out with them…

at a pace their system can handle.

It might sound like being an ally takes a superhuman power. Know that we allies take care of ourselves first, so we have the super strength to walk this winding path.

Being an ally puts us on the same team

Learning to communicate in ways that express our commitment to being an ally, versus being an opposing force who may or not be on their team at all times, is powerful.

We know we’re human, and we know this can be REALLY HARD.

When we separate the person from the behavior, though, it’s much easier to learn and remember that we’re on the same team.

We may not be in favor of everything they do, but we are in favor of them feeling connected, feeling alive inside, and thriving.

We all want to feel connected, alive, and thriving - millions of us just don’t know how or believe it’s possible, so we turn to substances to temporarily fill those gaping, aching holes.

When we acknowledge that we both want the same thing: for them (and us for that matter!) to feel connected, alive, and thriving, we’re automatically on the same team, aiming for the same result, all the time.

When things get messy or hard, we have this north star to keep returning to – we remember what you want. And we have compassion because we see that they’re trying to reach that same result, even if their current approach may be counterproductive.

4. How to Guide

How do we speak in ways that show we’re on the same team?

Research points to three styles of conversation:

  1. Directing

  2. Guiding

  3. Following

Directing is like it sounds - providing instruction, advice, and information.

The implicit communication in directing is:

“I know what you should do, and here’s how to do it!”

Following is when you, as the listener, take an interest in what the other person has to say, seek to understand, and respectfully refrain (at least temporarily) from inserting your own material.

The implicit communication of a helper in a following style is:

“I trust your own wisdom, will stay with you, and will let you work this out in your own way.”

The third style, guiding, is the one we recommend trying most. It is collaborative and intended to strengthen a person’s own motivation and commitment to change.

Guiding is a middle ground between directing and following; it’s being a good listener and offering information or advice when appropriate and most likely to be well received.

To get a better feel, here are a few verbs that illustrate each style:

Direct – Guide – Follow

Decide – Collaborate – Comprehend

Determine – Elicit – Go along with

Run – Point – Take in

Manage – Inspire – Listen

Evidence shows that we are more likely to be persuaded by what they hear ourselves say. So it makes sense that inspiring someone, as opposed to managing them or simply listening, tends to be most effective.

5. Conversation preparation

Try this thought experiment:

Think about something you’ve considered changing, thinking should change, want or need to change, but haven’t done so yet.

Essentially, think of a change you’re ambivalent about. We all have them.

Now imagine a helper; who tells you how much you need to make this change, gives you a list of reasons for doing so, emphasizes the importance of changing, tells you how to do it, assures you that you can do it, and prods you to get on with it. How would you be likely to respond?

Evidence shows that most often the helped; person feels some or all of the following:

  • Angry and not understood

  • Defensive and judged

  • Uncomfortable and ashamed

  • Powerless and discouraged

People tend to feel bad in response to someone trying to tell them what’s right and encourage them to do it.

Creating a conversation where someone bad stalls instead of helps change begin.

Now imagine you’re in a conversation with someone about something you want to change, but are ambivalent about. This time your friend doesn’t give advice. Instead, they ask you a series of questions, and then they listen receptively to what you say.

1.Why would you want to make this change happen?

  1. How could you go about it in a way that gets you the results you want?

  2. What are your three top reasons to do it?

  3. How important is it for you, and why?

Imagine your friend listening completely, then responding with a short summary of what you said:

Why you want to change, why it’s important, what the best reasons are, and how you could do it in order to get results. Then your friend asks one more question, and just listens as you reply:

  1. What do you think you’ll do?

Research found that people tend to feel:

  • Engaged and ready to keep talking

  • Empowered and hopeful

  • Open and respected

  • Understood and connected

In both cases the topic of the conversation is the same–a possible change we feel ambivalent about–but the outcomes are quite different.

So who would you rather have a conversation with?

Someone who is:

  1. angry, defensive, uncomfortable or

  2. who feels engaged, empowered, open, and understood?

They are the same people. The difference is in the dynamics of the conversation.