When I started attending recovery meetings for family members affected by someone else’s addiction, something became clear to me pretty quickly: I had no idea how to communicate in a healthy manner.
The communication that had taken place in my marriage when alcoholism was present ran through three phases. Phase 1 was to talk to him about his drinking and use whenever I could, and however I could, in the hope of making him stop. Phase 2 was not talking about his drinking and use at all, with the hope that if I ignored it would go away. Phase 3 was letting the frustration of this situation take over, and not talking about anything – otherwise known as the silent treatment. Of course, staring at someone else and thinking at them until they figure out what’s wrong is not the most effective communication tool…
I found my poor communication wasn’t only happening in my marriage, but also in my other relationships with family, friends, and my employer. As Dr. Claudia Black’s research has shown, one of the family rules that gets created in relationships dealing with addiction is “Don’t Talk.” If we don’t talk about what’s really going on, we can pretend that everything is okay. By the time I started seeking support for myself, I was really, really good at not talking.
Being around other family members in recovery who had similar experiences was comforting, and yet a bit scary. I heard them say things out loud I would never say! I heard them talk about the difficult conversations they would have with their loved ones – but, there was something different about their exchanges. They didn’t end up in fights. In fact, it sounded like they handled the discussion gracefully, and what they said was well-received. How on earth could that be possible?! I decided to try and find out, and was told the secret was to “THINK” before I spoke.
The acronym for THINK offers an opportunity to pause before speaking, taking a moment to ask “Is what I am about to say Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, and Kind?” The goal is to meet all of these ideals before speaking – or to take some time and space to regroup and center before speaking if all five aren’t presently possible.
Thoughtful allows for some space to be made in order to choose what I say, rather than letting an emotional reaction direct my words. I consider both myself and the other person carefully before speaking. I take a moment to be present to the situation at hand, and decide if now is the time to say something and if both parties involved are ready to have a discussion. If not, perhaps we need to find another time – and if I’m reactive rather than responsive, I definitely need to find another time.
Honest lets me look at the validity of what I want to say, and make sure it’s based in reality. If I’m in a place where my emotions are running rampant, I can be prone to say something like “You are ALWAYS like this! This happens every single time!” which would be a dishonest statement, because no one is ever always any one way. It also helps me to look at whether or not I’m being dishonest by omission. Am I hiding the truth about how I am feeling because I am afraid of what someone else’s reaction might be? That’s a way to not be truthful, as well – and stands in the way of letting someone know my authentic self.
Intelligent reminds me to take a moment of consideration to decide what it is I really want to discuss. I can plan out what I want to say to help me to stay on track. Sometimes I even make notes, because I know when I’m feeling vulnerable it can be easy to forget the points I wanted to cover. Although it may seem counterintuitive, remembering about being “intelligent” helps me to connect to my heart. I want to be well-thought-out, but I also want to remember that I’m talking to someone I care about – and want to stay away from name calling or being vulgar which I can sometimes justify to myself if my feelings are hurt. Some might connect this to kindness, but I always think about it in this category for whatever reason.
Necessary took me a little bit of time to figure out. There were a lot of things I thought were necessary, and needed to be discussed right now, which I found out wasn’t the truth. In recovery circles I learned to ask myself some questions to help with this aspect, which are “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said now by me?” This process helps me to move beyond what happens to me when I’m having an emotional reaction – which is to think everything is necessary and needs to be addressed immediately – to a place where I can be more rational.
Kind was the stickler for me. If I was upset I could easily think of something to say that was Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, and Necessary, but could still be extremely hurtful because of my attitude or sarcasm. Until I learned to take care of my feelings in a healthy manner, the hurt inside me often wanted to make others hurt, as well, which I could do most easily with my words. Kind reminds me to choose my words based in love. When “love” has felt too far-fetched, I would choose my words with respect. Only after practicing this for years did I come to realize that I needed to include myself in this same kindness, with the way I treat, and the words I use with, myself.
Using THINK helps me to communicate in a way that is meaningful and much more productive, but I are far from perfect. There are times where I need to give myself permission to take some space before having a conversation because I know that I’m not showing up as my best self. I don’t always communicate as gracefully as I would like, but I’ve found if I let the person know in advance that I’m feeling vulnerable, and I have the best of intentions in mind, and I’m probably going to mess up what I’m saying – I get to show up in a way that is real, and my willingness to be vulnerable extends an invitation for them to do the same.
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