Communication Is Key

Opening the doors to communication is an important first step in reestablishing healthy family relationships. Basically, real communication is being able to give and receive accurate messages.

Accuracy is the key, as people often communicate through the filters of their own perceptions and beliefs that may not be shared by others. This leads to distorted messages that build into misunderstandings. Listening is the foundation to effective communication. Genuine listening focuses on understanding and learning from the other person involved in the conversation.

Often one listens out of a desire to self-protect. “Am I in danger of getting hurt?” “Am I in danger of someone taking advantage of me?” “Am I in danger of being attacked?” These are all common questions one asks when listening with the motive of self-protection.

When interacting with an addict whose behaviors have been hurtful and frightening, this is understandable. However, in order for the situation to improve, the goals of listening must change. The focus must be on understanding the message of the speaker, not on self-protection. This task is much easier when appropriate emotional boundaries have been put in place. Genuine listening does not mean that one will agree with everything heard; it just means that one will accurately hear the message.


Body language is equally as important as the language of words. Posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body position all communicate messages in powerful ways. Effective communication takes body language into consideration. A defensive posture can quickly negate encouraging words. A person needs to be just as aware of what she's saying with her body as she is with her words.

Questions asking for clarification or further information will often be necessary to get a complete, accurate message. Repeating back what one thinks he's heard and asking the speaker if he's heard correctly is another method to promote effective communication. These questions also reassure the speaker that there is a real desire to understand and a heartfelt caring in the communication.

Two words to avoid in effective communication are “You” and “Why.” These two words imply attacks and accusations. The typical reaction of the hearer is to respond with defensiveness. The focus of the communication then shifts from understanding to winning — who is going to come out on top, the winner.


Assertive communication is a style of communicating in which someone speaks directly regarding what he feels, thinks, and desires. An assertive person asks for what he wants, but not at the expense of the rights and feelings of others. The goal of assertive communication is to maintain self-respect, while at the same time doing everything possible to enhance relationships.

The speaker will have better communication results when beginning sentences with “I.” This implies taking personal responsibility, allowing the hearer space to have her own thoughts and opinions. These communication skills may not have been the pattern in families dealing with an addicted loved one.

Frequently there will have been so much hurt, pain, and anger in communications that a defensive position has seemed the only safe approach. Therefore, it will take time and practice to change the communication environment to one of safety, allowing for concern, thoughts, and feelings to be expressed without fear.

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