How to Talk to an Alcoholic: Holding an Intervention With Compassion

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Seeing a loved one struggle with alcoholism is one of the most challenging things a person can experience. And at a certain point, you may decide that it’s time to intervene.

However, interventions don’t always go well. In worst-case scenarios, there can be yelling, shouting, blaming—all things that can shut communication down or cause a loved one to feel ganged up on. In these cases, it’s common for the person to retreat and reject any solutions.

If you want to avoid this situation and get closer to meaningful change, it’s crucial to voice your concerns in a compassionate way, even when it feels difficult.

In this article, we’ll cover how to talk to someone about their drinking, and how to hold an intervention with compassion. With the proper steps, you could potentially help change the trajectory of your loved one’s life for the better.

Why Is Compassion Important in Interventions?

Angry confrontation and shame-based strategies are common in interventions, but they may cause a person to become defensive and reject help.

A lack of connection and negative self-esteem are two factors that play a role in alcoholism and addiction, and reinforcing these negative experiences could cause a person to withdraw.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why compassion is so essential in interventions. It’s possible to still bring all of your concerns to the table without making your loved one feel attacked.

Dr. Nicole Kosanke, co-author of Beyond Addiction, discusses why compassion-based strategies are so effective when encouraging behavior change:

If you think about any really impactful teacher that you’ve had … the words that come to mind universally for people are words like supportive, encouraging, loving. Somebody who really believed in me.

In other words, people are more likely to listen and communicate honestly when they know you are on their side and want them to succeed.

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Practice Empathy To Nurture Good Communication

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Learning how to talk to an alcoholic is difficult, especially if it’s someone you love dearly and feel concerned for. It’s even more complicated when their actions have caused you pain.

However, try to reel yourself back in and remember why empathy is important. Alcohol use disorder is often seen as a character flaw or a moral failing—but science recognizes it as a medical condition. It’s likely that your loved one is not proud of their choices. And there’s a good chance that they deal with self-stigma and inner shame already.

Practicing empathy can help foster good communication between you and your struggling loved one. And this can help build the foundation for positive changes in the future.

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Tips for Compassionate & Effective Communication With a Problem Drinker

Here are a few tips to encourage effective and compassionate communication with your loved one:

  • Avoid shaming or criticizing. Your loved one likely already criticizes themselves due to internal shame and the stigma of addiction.
  • It’s okay to talk about your concerns. Use “I feel” statements to avoid causing the person to feel defensive, and keep your emotions level throughout these conversations.
  • Don’t overlook the positives. As often as you can, focus on what your loved one is doing well and what you appreciate about them.
  • Listen. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, listening can nurture connection and make your loved one feel heard.
  • Practice compassion. Compassion and understanding can help you build trust between yourself and the person struggling.

How To Conduct an Intervention Compassionately and Effectively

When it comes to what to say at an intervention, you should speak what’s closest to your heart. However, it’s crucial that you and everyone attending can get the message across in a compassionate way.

Here are some tips to help you achieve that:

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  • Make sure that everyone involved understands the nature of addiction. It is a disease—not a moral failure and not a personal flaw.
  • Choose people who have good relationships with the person. A person with alcoholism is much more likely to consider the concerns of those that they love, trust, and respect. The quality of people attending the intervention, rather than the quantity, is most important.
  • Share your concerns in a way that shows empathy. After all, you’re holding this intervention because you care about their wellbeing.
  • Remember that change is gradual, and it can take some time. Dr. Nicole Kosanke states, “There’s this sense that … you could change in that way, and lightning strikes, and we’re off to a new world. But it’s just not like that for most people.”
  • Plan and offer treatment options for the individual. After everyone gets a chance to speak, make sure that you offer clear, accessible options for your loved one.
  • Expect snags and difficulties along the way. It’s not often that one intervention will result in complete recovery. Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease by nature. But with proper treatment, healthier coping strategies, and connection to positive influences, your loved one’s chances of success are that much greater.

Finally, it’s important to consider whether a traditional group intervention will be the most helpful thing for your loved one. If you think a one-on-one conversation will be more effective and less threatening for them, that’s a perfectly acceptable approach as well. The positive impact of the discussion is more important than the exact structure.

Remember To Show Compassion for Yourself

If you’ve communicated with your loved one poorly in the past, try not to be judgmental towards yourself. Perhaps your emotions got the best of you on more than one occasion, and that’s okay. You were scared for the worst.

As Dr. Nicole Kosanke puts it:

Take a beat and recognize: There are reasons why I got here, and they’re pretty valid reasons. And that fear can lead us to feel like … this is an urgent matter that requires yelling and screaming and whatever’s required. Whatever comes out is what’s required.

Although your angry outbursts might not be your most proud moments, it’s important to recognize why you were feeling that way. This recognition and self-compassion may help you make the switch to calmer communication styles in the future.

Don’t Forget To Take Care of You

Relatives and friends of those with addictions often feel like they should ignore their own well-being until their loved one gets help. For example, a parent may think that they should focus on themselves only after their child is healthy.

However, this can be detrimental to your well-being and leave you feeling burnt out completely.

Neglecting your self-care may sometimes feel like the right thing to do, but as Dr. Kosanke puts it:

That’s not a great strategy. It’s like saying you’re going to run a marathon but not going to bring any water with you … You’re going to run out of gas.

Notice when you’re holding an overwhelming amount of stress and be compassionate towards yourself. Proper self-care will help you take care of others, too.

The Bottom Line on How To Hold an Intervention With Compassion

Figuring out how to approach an alcoholic is a tough battle. It takes self-compassion, empathy for the person with the addiction, patience, and planning. And at the end of the intervention, you’ll want to offer treatment options for the person you love.

Barriers to care are one reason many people reject help, and this is where telemedicine makes a big difference. Programs like Ria Health now offer comprehensive support for alcohol addiction, 100 percent from home. Our members access expert medical care, anti-craving medication, weekly coaching meetings, and more—all from a convenient smartphone app. We even customize treatment to each individual’s needs.

Written By:
Alicia Schultz
Minnesota-based freelancer and health advocate who aims to empower others through her work.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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