Communication is key.
It is the basis of all social relationships – an important part of our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Without communication, we can’t fully express ourselves, relay our emotions effectively, or convey our wants or needs. Put bluntly, life would be extremely difficult without the ability to communicate.
But this is where many that struggle with drug and alcohol addiction find themselves – having difficulties building healthy relationships and communication skills. As addiction takes hold of a person’s life, their ability to communicate and engage in positive relationships begins to deteriorate.
One of the things I stress to my kids is the ability to communicate effectively. I’m always telling them to “use your words.” This statement is really funny though. When do we not use words? Our whole ability to communicate exists strictly because of the ability to speak words, right? Therefore, we tend to view communication as the ability to verbalize one’s thoughts.
But communication is more nuanced than our ability to talk. According to some research, nonverbal communication like body language may reveal deep insights into how one is thinking or feeling. Therefore, to be a successful communicator, one must learn how to interpret these nonverbal and verbal signals.
That is why I believe the most important part of communication is not talking, but rather listening.
So, how should we listen and why is this important? Some would argue that, “You should listen like a counselor listens.” And while no one is perfect in their ability to listen, counselors can be great role models for how we should aim to communicate.
The “Metaphor” of Listening
Let’s start with a simple question: Does a counselor listen differently than a friend would? To best answer this question, let’s look at this from the metaphor of a story.
A friend listens like an active participant in the story; while a counselor listens like an observer of the story. This means that a friend listens as though the story is being told for themselves – asking and thinking things like, “How did I contribute to what is being said?” or “How can I help prevent this in the future?”
While these questions can be helpful at times, they can also be problematic as they don’t promote good listening skills. The problem is related to who is at the center of attention in these talks. When a friend listens, much of the attention focuses around how that friend is engaging in the telling of the story and often discounts the storyteller himself.
A counselor is usually able to be more objective. The counselor listens to understand the story and what is actually going on, not placing themselves inside the story. They will ask questions like:
- Who are the main people or components of what is going on?
- What is the main theme of what is being communicated right now?
- How is this person making sense of what is happening?
- To whom or what are they assigning responsibility?
- What is most significant to this person about the story they are telling me?
- What would make the biggest difference, for better or worse, in the story I’m being told?
Yet, these questions come with their own issues. It would feel natural for a counselor to potentially ask these questions as they are speaking with a client, based on the relationship they have. Coming from a friend or other close relationship though, they may come across strange and potentially uncaring. It is important that as you listen and begin to ask these things, remember the spirit behind these questions and the shift in perspective that will help you to develop good listening skills in all relationships.
The Practice of Listening
Desire is key here. The main skill that you need to be a good listener is to actually want to be a good listener. Wanting to listen, placing value on the person you are listening to and what he/she is saying, gives you the ability to quit playing your thoughts (whether verbally or mentally) over what is actually being said by the other person. This skill will immediately cause a positive response in the person you are listening to, allowing them to want to continue to speak and share what is troubling them. The skills listed below are just a few examples of ways that you can show value to other people when listening.
- Show and Maintain Interest
Some conversations are more interesting than others. It’s much easier to listen when we are interested in the topic. However, our interest should always be superseded by the value that we place on the person we are listening to. Showing and maintaining interest can be done through good eye contact, calling the person by their name, and attempting to find common interests with the individual.
- Mirror Their Body Language
We show value for someone else in our nonverbal cues: eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker, relaxed shoulders, unfolded arms, and removing distractions (such as checking your phone or working on another project). Notice the other person’s body language and leverage that by essentially copying it. This will make the person speaking feel more at ease with sharing with you. When we fail to honor the other person through mirrored body language, we create a temptation for them to increase the “force” of their speaking in order to gain our attention.
- Clarify When Confused
Good use of body language can help here through a tilted head or confused expression, but asking some clarifying questions will help to gain understanding and again let the other person know the value you place in them. For example, it is better to ask, “How do [assumes there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” than “How can [expresses skepticism that there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” When in doubt, give grace to the other person. Communication is hard and grace is needed on both ends.
- Summarize What You Hear
Before you give any type of response, summarize what you have heard. The main benefit here is to make sure that you know what the other person is talking about before you respond. By doing this, you will be able to show the person you are speaking with the value that you have for the words that they say. By summarizing for understanding, we show the value we hold for the other person we are speaking with. If we fail to summarize, the simple truth is that too many times our response will at best be wrong and could be damaging to the relationship going forward.
- Listen to Give Positivity
Instead of listening to find out what needs to be different, corrected, or changed, we must not give in to this temptation. Many times, it is easier to find where the problems are so that we can “fix them.” But the truth is, we – even counselors – can’t fix problems. Therefore, we listen for what is good and right, finding the positive and affirming this. In this, the problems will reveal themselves, allowing the other person to fix them.
- Just Ask More Questions
When in doubt, ask more questions. As stated above, the tendency is to give a response and try to “fix” the problem. Many times, the listener may feel the pressure to say something insightful to help the other person. When this happens, it is always better to simply ask more questions.
While all of these tips can be helpful in listening, the biggest predictor of being a good listener is practice. If we want to have effective relationships with others, as is our goal, we must practice these skills and leave room for failure. No counselor, parent, spouse, friend, or anyone can ever claim to have perfection in this area. Through practice and a continued sense of care for others instead of ourselves, we can improve these skills and our relationships.
In the end, we know that listening is hard. This is especially true for the addict and alcoholic who continues to struggle with decisions based on self and their own desires. This means that many times their listening and communication is center on themselves and, as stated above, these areas suffer. So many broken and sometimes irreparable relationships walk through the door of Stonegate Center, because of the individual or loved one’s addiction. If you or your loved is struggling in your relationships as a result of addiction, we are here to help begin the process of putting broken pieces back together. Sometimes all it takes is to begin to listen.
If you or a loved one is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, we are here for you. Give one of our Admissions Specialists a call at (817) 993-9733 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our long-term substance abuse treatment program offers individual therapy, group therapy, equine therapy, and a two-part family intensive. We encourage you to take the first step and reach out in order to start your journey towards lifelong sobriety.
Clint Donaldson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and therapist at Stonegate Center. Clint was born in Dallas, grew up in Plano, and has lived in Texas his entire life. In high school he knew that he wanted to help others and initially felt called to be a medical doctor. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. Clint worked for several churches for about 7 years before joining Stonegate Center.