03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Communicating With An Alcoholic/Addict -- Part 2

The Art of Communicating with the Alcoholic/Addict - Part 2
Don't Engage! -- Turning a Deaf Ear to Baiting And Punishment

To engage means to participate. Engaging with someone means that you are paying attention to them and responding -- positive or negative, calm or infuriated. The alcoholic/addict has gotten used to your engagement, usually the negative and infuriating kind. Even when you are screaming at the top of your lungs with no acknowledgment from them, you are engaging and in turn giving attention; and the alcoholic/addict would prefer negative attention to no attention at all.

The alcoholic/addict rarely listens past the first sentence, especially if it is something they do not want to hear. They will tune you out, walk away or sometimes pretend to oblige just to shut you up. They are truly masters of selective hearing.

Whether it's about substance abuse or what time to expect them for dinner, the alcoholic/addict is often in their own world, miles away from yours and whatever you're talking about.

Whether your loved one is in their addiction or new to recovery, sometimes a well meaning, simple discussion can turn futile. Too often you can't help but get sucked into a conversation that turns heated and escalates into a full-blown screaming match. When it gets to that level, no one is listening; no one can respond with any thought or good intention. NOTHING is accomplished but more resentment and anger at yourself and the alcoholic/addict.

Chances are both you and the alcoholic/addict are used to being in each other's faces. Maybe for years this has been the only way you have communicated and guess're exhausted and obviously it's not working. So, if you stop arguing, crying, screaming or jumping out of your skin about their flippant, irresponsible, dishonest behavior, they may become confused or have what I call "a mental short circuit".

Not engaging with the alcoholic/addict will turn out to be very uncomfortable for them, especially if they are not used to this. You've changed course on them. You've gone against the grain of what you both have been used to.

When you calmly disengage from that pattern, the alcoholic/addict may sense a fear that they are losing you. They will come to realize that there is no satisfaction or fun in arguing with someone that doesn't argue back. By not engaging, you are in control of your own actions and re-actions.

Not engaging also means relaying what you need to say once, maybe twice, with brevity and clarity. Don't let the alcoholic/addict suck you back into a discussion that you feel you have completed. Debating the issue or questioning your motives is ways that the alcoholic/addict can keep you engaged and a participant.

Be mindful that even though you may not be verbally engaging, there are non-verbal communications that can result in a locking of horns and be just as powerful though silent. For example, rolling your eyes, crossing your arms, tapping your foot, sighing or demonstrating blatant indifference can provoke an argument. In addition, speaking to them sarcastically, whining, mimicking or using an unpleasant tone or attitude, can provoke an invitation for engagement even though you haven't raised your voice.
If you are not going to engage with the alcoholic/addict, they may turn to their plan "B": baiting and punishing. Don't allow yourself to be roped in with this new course direction.

Baiting and punishing is threatening the family or friend with loaded questions in which the alcoholic/addict wants you to respond a certain way either by meeting their demands physically or verbally.

Here are some examples that the alcoholic/addict may use to engage you in banter.

1)"I'm always letting you down."
2) "I guess I'm just a bad person."
3) "You don't care about me, or you would do this or do that."
4) "I can't do anything right."
5) "You deserve someone better."
6) "You've always liked my sister/my brother better than me."
7) "You just want to leave me."
8) "I don't know why you don't trust me."

And my favorite.....

9) "I guess this is what you want, right?"

Like a perfectly staged play, the alcoholic/addict is used to your answer being one of these or something similar. Any of these responses will open the door for verbal engagement.

1) "Of course not."
2) "Don't be silly."
3) "That's not true."
4) "O.k., what would you like me to do to show you that you are wrong?"
5) "No, I never said I wanted this or that".

The objective now is to re-direct our response with the following or something similar. Don't respond with a question, (i.e. "Why do you feel that way?") for that is an open invitation for engagement and possible conflict. Instead...

1)"I'm sorry you feel that way."
2) "I never said that."
3) "You must have misheard me."
4) "Please don't put words in my mouth."

If you don't take the bait, the alcoholic/addict has nowhere to go.

We all have buttons that if get pushed we react with a sometimes less than favorable or mature response. If the alcoholic/addict is an intimate part of your life, they will know what sets you off and what an especially sensitive issue is for you.

If you once confessed to the alcoholic/addict that you felt that you were not a particularly good mother, don't allow them to have a field day during an argument by bringing up your inability in being a good mother and therefore unable to be a good mate to him or good friend to others. This is a good example of baiting; first in defending yourself and while doing so, engaging in a heated discussion; pointless and fruitless.

Be careful of the hook. Be mindful of when it's coming and prepare a plan to swim away successfully and unscathed.

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