When dealing with an alcoholic or addict, it helps to ask ourselves: why should he or she listen to my opinion?
The answer should be: because I mean what I say, and I know what I’m talking about.
We often lose credibility because we make statements that suggest the above isn’t true. We’re so focused on communicating our feelings we don’t realize that (to the alcoholic at least), it sounds like we don’t know what we’re talking about.
An example: I listened to a guest lecturer talk to a group of high school students about the dangers of the drug PCP. The presenter informed the group that PCP would make the user psychotic. Sitting in the row in front of me was a young man who I happened to know smoked PCP with some frequency and yet clearly hadn’t become psychotic. I assume the other kids knew it as well.
So who are they going to believe: the lecturer, or their experience with their friend?
And what happens to the credibility of the rest of the information the speaker provides?
Same thing holds with our alcoholic and addicted family members. If something contradicts his/her experience, they’ll believe the experience. However, if we’re able to provide information in such a way that it better explains that experience, we gain credibility that extends to other positions we may take.
Counselors demonstrate credibility by showing they have knowledge that the client doesn’t. Let’s look in on one counselor during an initial assessment with a new patient:
Counselor: “So you say you’ve been having trouble sleeping?”
Patient: “Yes. Well, sort of. For the past few months. I can’t sleep all the way through the night. I fall asleep in my chair in front of the TV and wake up a couple hours later and go to bed. After that I wake up about every hour all night long. I got tested for sleep apnea but it’s not that. I used to take sleeping pills for it but I ran out.”
Counselor: “When you say fell asleep in your chair — by any chance were you drinking while you were watching TV?”
Patient: “Well, sure. Some. I mean, a few drinks. More than a few, but it’s late and I’m going to bed anyway, so it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Counselor: “When you get up in the morning, do you ever find your hands tremble a little?”
Patient: “Yeah, sometimes. I thought at one point I might have Parkinson’s? My dad had that.”
Counselor: “How about eating breakfast?”
Patient: “I haven’t ate breakfast in years. My stomach…”
Counselor: “I think maybe the alcohol is behind your sleep problem. My guess would be you’re putting yourself to sleep with liquor, then going into withdrawal as it wears off. That’s what wakes you up. It’s called ‘fractured sleep’. Then in the morning, you’ve got a sleep deficit. You’re still tired.”
Patient: “I’m exhausted. Feels like I didn’t sleep at all.”
Counselor: “And you’re in withdrawal. Mild tremors and incipient nausea. If you ate something you’d probably feel pretty sick.”
Patient: (considering) “You could be right.”
In showing that he possessed knowledge that’s both relevant and helpful, the counselor establishes credibility that will carry over to the rest of his message.
Family members can do the same simply by learning about addiction. It’s surprising how few take advantage of that. We’re all too willing to leave knowledge to experts. But with any chronic disease, the experts will tell you that the first step to success is to become something of an ‘expert’ yourself.
That doesn’t mean a medical degree. It does mean you should read, talk to others, and seek to learn.
Hopefully this website will become a part of that process for you.
When you go to learn more about alcoholism, you’ll no doubt note that different experts think of addiction in very different ways.
Some emphasize the psychological, some the spiritual aspects. Some focus on addiction’s role within the family, some on its role in a culture or society.
To an extent, they’re viewing the same thing from different perspectives.
The more complex a problem, the more likely we are to encounter multiple viewpoints on its causes and solutions. That’s certainly the case with alcoholism, which has probably been part of the human experience for many thousands of years, and in most of the world’s cultures.
Don’t be discouraged by disagreement. Emphasize the practical, the way the Counselor above did with sleep problems. That’s where credibility comes from — in the acquisition of helpful information.