3 Powerful Communication Tools

Jul 10, 2018

An important part of treatment, both in our facility and after residential treatment is over, is talk therapy. Whether it’s individual therapy, family therapy, or group therapy, effective treatment will depend on effective communication.

Below are a few communication tools that we encourage patients to practice. Not only are they excellent helps during therapy, but they can also be useful in other interactions.

“I” Statements

In a fraught conversation, where it’s easy for people to get defensive, aggressive, or disengaged, it’s important to moderate the possible conflicts. “I” statements are a great solution for this, because they prevent patterns of accusatory conversation. “I” statements are also powerful because they are framed in a way that helps us to take responsibility for our own feelings. Here’s how it works:

“I feel ______________ when you ___________.”

Anytime the conversation veers into aggressive territory, it can be helpful to steer people into using “I” statements instead.

Reflection Statements

This is a helpful tool to enable individuals to improve their listening skills. In this scenario, one person is assigned to be the “talker” and another is the “listener.” The talker shares statements about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, especially as it pertains to situations of conflict between the two of them. The listener reflects those statements back, demonstrating that they hear, acknowledge, and understand the others’ thoughts and feelings. Reflection statements should be:

  • Rephrased instead of just parroted back word for word.
  • Including information about the emotions behind the words, as demonstrated through tone and body language.
  • Stated in an understanding and exploratory tone, somewhere between statement and question.
  • Free of judgement, sarcasm, or defensiveness.


Time Outs

While communication is an essential tool in therapy and in relationships, sometimes the best thing you can do for the sake of communication is identifying when to take a time out. When things get too heated, we no longer have the intention of true communication. Instead, we use words as a tool to hurt each other, to be stubborn, to fuel anger, etc. That’s why it’s important to identify those moments when a discussion gets too heated, and have a sort of “safe word” where either person can call a time out. Then both parties can take a step back, take stock of their own emotional state, and return to the discussion when they’ve calmed down.

Keep in mind, a time out isn’t an excuse to cut off or discount someone else’s feelings, and it’s also not a way to indefinitely table something. It’s important to prioritize revisiting it after some time.

Why Words are Important During Recovery

There are a number of factors that go into finding positivity and consistent motivation within addiction recovery, and a big part of it is remaining comfortable in one’s own skin. At Renaissance Ranch, our outpatient addiction treatment focuses on how you or a loved one can find comfortable ways to cope with triggers and urges while conquering the disease of addiction.

One area that’s especially important in any recovery scenario is the words that are used, both by those in recovery and those they spend time with. Words can go a long way to reflecting beliefs and attitudes, especially when it comes to addiction. Here are some basics to know.

Importance of Words

Our basic beliefs about substance abuse, compulsive behavior problems and the potential for those to be changed can often be built into the words we use when discussing these topics. Perhaps more importantly, our words are reflective of our belief system – and our ways of conveying those beliefs and attitudes. Because these are so important when discussing addiction, they need to be spoken with care.

Words and Stigmas

The beliefs that words reflect have an impact, particularly when it comes to stigmatization. People with substance abuse and other addiction issues fear the stigma attached to their disease – word choices are hugely important here. Referring to someone casually as an “alcoholic” could have profound effects on the way they view themselves and how they prioritize their recovery.

Beliefs Inform Behavior

A study recently found that treatment providers who refer to their patients as “addicts” found significantly more negative attitudes toward treatment personnel than did those providers who referred to patients as simple “people with substance use disorders.” This is direct proof that even a small change in word choice can have a profound effect on addiction recovery.

Words and Positivity

Fortunately, this also means that words hold enormous power to impact positive change. Some of the most successful addiction treatments out there are based on the use of language that’s non-confrontational, respectful and conveys a sense of working together – all with an undertone of empathy and understanding, rather than demands about changing difficult behaviors.

Changing Language

Based on calls from professionals in the field, language is changing for many forms of addiction, especially drug and alcohol addiction. The goals here are to both reduce stigmas and judgements and bring more commonality within the professional addiction treatment field.

The word “addict” is being replaced by softer terms – saying that a patient is a person with a heroin addiction gets the same message across, but implies strongly that the patient is a person first, and struggling with a medical condition (addiction) second. Terms are also being more medicalized as we learn more about how addiction affects the brain, which will help bring a shift away from stigmatizing language.

How to Avoid Sending the Wrong Message

As friends or loved ones of someone in recovery, we have to take caution. While well-intentioned, some of the things we say or do might subtly trigger negative cravings or set back the recovery process. These aren’t enabling traits so much as they’re common mental traps many support outlets fall into. Let’s look at a few of the most common, and why to stay away from them.

“You Don’t Seem Like an Addict”

The word “addiction” conjures up a mental image for many people: A shabby-looking, destitute and perhaps homeless person just looking for their next fix. In reality, many people who deal with addiction are much more capable of hiding it, and can appear like “normal” adults before you find out what’s going on with them.

By telling someone they don’t look like an addict, you’re minimizing the real gravity of their situation. This may give them a false sense that what they’re doing is okay to continue.

“Just One”

“You can have just one drink” may sound like a harmless statement, but it’s not. Recovering addicts have worked extremely hard to get to where they are, and telling them “just one” can minimize this struggle. Beyond that, it can be one of the quickest ways to lead to a relapse.

“When are You Cured?”

A big mistake many people make is assuming that a friend or loved one in recovery will simply be “cured” at some point, and return to normal life. Addiction is indeed a disease, but it’s not one with a set timetable for a cure. Everyone’s journey is different. Asking an addict if they’re cured might make them feel like they’re failing or coming up short somehow, which can disrupt recovery.

Normalizing Use

Down similar lines, some assume that after a certain long enough period of time, a former addict will be able to go back to drinking or using drugs “normally.” This completely ignores the often-fragile state of mind these people can be in, often for years or decades after struggling with addiction. Telling them things like this also gives some people a sense of permission – they allow themselves to eventually fall back into this pattern because they use your words as justification.