Having a conversation with someone showing signs of alcoholism isn't easy

How to help someone with signs of alcoholism

Drinking is a big part of most people’s lives, directly or indirectly, in almost every corner of the world. No matter where you go, people drink. There are pubs, clubs and bottle shops in every town and suburb, an alcohol aisle in most supermarkets, and in some countries people can drink in almost any public place. Alcohol is everywhere, there’s no escaping it. Alcohol is also highly addictive, and when combined with the sheer volume and availability of alcohol in society, it’s highly likely that you know someone who displays signs of alcoholism. Sometimes the signals are easy to spot, while other times they are virtually impossible unless you know what you’re looking for.

If you do know someone who displays signs of alcoholism, what do you do? Do you confront them, or do you look the other way? Should you get involved, or is it none of your business? Are you close enough to them to voice your concerns, or would you feel uncomfortable getting involved?

How to approach someone showing signs of alcoholism

Imagine someone approaching you to discuss an issue that you may be trying to hide from the outside world. An issue that may be embarrassing, humiliating or even destructive. How would you want to be approached? Before approaching anyone who you think is showing signs of alcoholism, think about what you will say and do beforehand. You must be:

  • well prepared with what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it
  • sensitive to their emotions given their initial response will probably either be denial or defensive
  • empathetic to their situation given you may not know what is going on in their lives
  • concerned for their wellbeing rather than angry at their actions

Because alcohol is so widespread, they may not realise they have a problem. They may be surprised that you’re taking this approach given they may believe that everyone else does exactly the same thing.

Preparation is the key

Talking to someone showing signs of alcoholism may be the best thing you ever do
Talking to someone showing signs of alcoholism may be the best thing you ever do

If you’ve decided to approach someone who is showing signs of alcoholism, your timing is vital. Picking your moment will have a huge effect on how successful you are. Don’t raise the issue in front of other people, particularly people who aren’t close to them. The last thing you want to do is embarrass them in front of strangers or people they aren’t particularly close to. Don’t broach the subject if they are drinking. People don’t think rationally when they’ve been drinking, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a positive response. You’re more likely to get into an argument as they defend their habit. Instead, you need to:

  • Choose a moment when you’re both in the right frame of mind – calm and confident
  • Have as much information available as possible – facts, figures and information on where they can go for support

You may strike it lucky and they may admit they have a problem. However, you’re more likely to need several conversations with them before they agree to see a professional about their signs of alcoholism. Either way, you need to be prepared to have these tough conversations on more than one occasion, and support them along the journey if and when they decide they need help.

The language you use is so important

Even though the issue is problematic, it’s important to use language that is positive and uplifting. Talk about the benefits of drinking less, rather than the problems of drinking more. For example, you could talk about:

  • Improvements to health and wellbeing – “Imagine how much healthier you would be if you drank less. What do you think?”
  • Having a more positive outlook on life – “I remember the upbeat and bubbly guy you were before you started drinking so much. What has happened to change that?”
  • Increasing productivity – “What happened to that project you were working on, I remember how much you loved it?”
  • Times in the past when they drank less and enjoyed life more – “You used to love doing that Tuesday night acting class, what happened with that?”

Always focus on the positives rather than the negatives, and don’t use words to label them such as ‘alcoholic’ or ‘binge drinker’. This will cause them to get defensive and instead of having a constructive conversation, it’s likely to turn into an argument instead. Also, use open-ended questions to encourage two-way conversation rather than making statements. Making statements won’t encourage the person to open up and contribute to the conversation. Instead, they may shut down and stop talking instead.

What will you do?

If you know someone showing signs of alcoholism, you have a big decision to make. The easy option is to look the other way. After all, people are adults and can make decisions for themselves. However, it’s not always black and white and there may be reasons for their actions that they simply can’t control.

If you decide to get involved, remember to pick the right moment, use language that is positive, and have information on hand to point them in the right direction. While it might be tough to get involved, it may turn out to be the best decision you ever make, and you just may save a life.

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