Communicating With An Addict: Hitting The Pause Button

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Carole Bennett, MA Substance abuse counselor; activist; author, 'Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict'

A car that is in neutral doesn't go anywhere; neither forward nor backward. Staying neutral with the alcoholic/addict means you have no opinion one way or the other. It means finding that middle ground and neither validating nor challenging what the alcoholic/addict is communicating to you.

Staying neutral is safe. No one can come back and blame you for saying this or that, encouraging this action or behavior. When you stay neutral, you turn the decision over to the alcoholic/addict for them to make on their own; you are empowering them with their own choice, and at the same time empowering yourself with a commitment to neutrality. The alcoholic/addict will be afforded the opportunity to learn from their decision, not yours.

That decision will either garner positive results or not, but either way they will be in charge of that, not you.

Staying neutral and not engaging (a previous blog) is synonymous. One cannot be totally effective without the other. If you can be successful implementing both of these concepts, then I promise you will feel more grounded and confident, with renewed self respect and dignity about your interchange. Your relationship with the alcoholic/addict will take on a new dimension, because you have started to "short circuit" their thinking by responding differently than you have on previous occasions.

If they genuinely and honestly want your input I have compiled some neutral and safe comments for you to consider.

1) "You've asked for my opinion, but it may not be what you want to hear."
2) "I don't know enough about the situation or have enough facts to make a comfortable assessment."
3) "Use your own best judgment" or "that's up to you."
4) "I think I am too close to the situation to give an unbiased opinion."
5) "You seem to have given this enough thought to make a decision."
6) "I really have no opinion one way or the other."
7) "I'm uncomfortable getting in the middle of this."
8) "I have addressed this issue before and you know how I feel. Please don't ask me again."

Remember that not only the words that come out of your mouth need to be neutral, but your tone, attitude and expressions need to follow suit. If you say "use your own best judgment" with a... you really are an idiot or that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard inflection, you then become ineffective because that action will trump the other.

Working hand in hand with staying neutral is the ability to take a breath, hitting the pause button and thinking twice/acting once.

Those few precious seconds, where you breathe and in turn hit the pause button might allow you to think twice and act once. It will give you time to regroup and respond with thought rather than reaction or emotion. Probably after years of manipulative conversations and actions, the alcoholic/addict knows what kind of response he or she will evoke. If you pause, stay neutral and not engage then you can put ourselves in control and not hand the baton over to them to conduct the exchange.

All of us have knee jerk reactions to things that can push our buttons. And some of us can go from 0 to 60 faster than others. For many, we feel that if we don't retaliate immediately, either with words or actions, then it is a sign of weakness. Getting angry too often can be like crying wolf. No one will believe that you are justified in your anger if you do it too frequently. Hence, hitting the pause button allows you to take stock of the situation before acting on it impetuously; giving you time to calculate your next action so you can be coming from a place of confidence and stability rather than emotion and passion. It also demonstrates restraint and maturity and it will signify to the alcoholic/addict (sometimes more aptly described as the "bully") that they do not have the power to "get your goat."

The silence or passivity that you maintain can be unnerving and uncomfortable to them; they are not used to this kind of response and may be anxious about what's coming next.
Changing the routine from what it once was will show the alcoholic/addict that you are starting to map out your own attitude and communication and therefore becoming more resilient to their behavior.

Though these concepts are simple on the surface, they can be challenging to incorporate. We are so easily distracted by wanting to protect the alcoholic/addict from making bad decisions or using poor judgment. We feel we know better and most likely do, but we cannot beg, cry, force, manipulate or make the alcoholic/addict see things our way if they don't want to. If you do nothing else but hit the pause button, you are giving yourself a chance to curb your anger or frustration and then in turn find those neutral words for your answer.

Implementing these concepts might finally take you out of the play and into the audience.

If I can be of service to you or your family, please e-mail me at or go to Family Recovery Solutions