Better Communication | Try Answering the Words, Not Your Emotions

Better communication – likely most of us would give anything to have better communication in some of our relationships. But what is it about “talking” that makes communication so difficult – even in the best of relationships, let alone in a family where there is (or has been) active alcohol abuse or alcoholism. In these families, it seems, ‘talking’ takes on a whole new meaning. It can be a minefield of misunderstandings as participants try to mince words, speak in half truths (thought to be ‘true’ or at least the “nice thing to do”) or read body language as if their life depended on it (because sometimes it really does!). Why is this so?


Better communication – try answering the words, not your emotion.

As families unconsciously collude to make the drinking behaviors (e.g., inappropriate comments, hangovers, arguments, DUIs, passing out) as somehow having a ‘real world’ reason (e.g., “I was only kidding” or “I must not have eaten soon enough” or “You’re always nagging, knock it off!”…) vs what it really is —  an alcohol infused behavior, honest, truthful communication goes out the window. And, it’s understandable that it does.

Can you imagine telling someone who is drunk what you really think when they ask, “What’s the matter with you?” or “What’d you do with my car keys, dam*_@?” or “I told you kids to shut up — I’ve got a headache and can’t take the noise. Just what don’t you understand about knock it off?” And, so it goes until a person starts to react to their feelings of fear or anger or disbelief or anxiety in order to ‘safely’ respond to a question posed by their drunk loved one in a manner they hope doesn’t trigger a behavior they can’t handle.

Sadly, in time, this ability carries over into just about all aspects of their communication until they are answering or responding to the emotions they feel when anyone speaks.  This is because they’ve unconsciously wired neural networks in their brains to react to the emotions they feel when they hear a person’s words because that is what has kept them safe in a home where there is active alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

How does a person unravel these neural networks?

  • Try to answer the words, not the emotion. For example, if someone says, “What’s the matter with you?” Instead of getting defensive or lying and saying, “Nothing,” try, “I’m not sure, but I know I’ll figure it out — just need some time.”  If that person keeps coming at you, trying to needle you to go deeper, restate your words and walk away (yes, it’s okay to walk away – it does not mean you’ve lost or they’ve won — you just don’t know what’s wrong and will figure it out).
  • Keep your answer very simple. Don’t get defensive and go on and on in order to explain why they should take you at your word. Just make a short, simple statement. If they push you, repeat your short, simple statement.
  • Feel free to ask for clarification. If your short, simple statements are not working, ask, “Maybe I don’t understand what you are asking. I thought you wanted to know what was wrong with me. Is that what you’d asked?”(And, watch your tone of voice — if you aren’t feeling defensive or angry, then your voice will come across as simply wanting clarification.)
  • Remember that words are words and emotions are reactions that can be all over the place. This is not to imply in any way that you shouldn’t have an emotional reaction to what is said, but assigning a fact or realty to an emotion can get you into trouble. So, keep your feelings and emotions in check and just answer the words. Remember, you can always come back to the conversation later should you figure out there was more to the root of your emotion — something worth telling the other person.

Now, this is going to take practice — a lot of practice — especially if you’ve been doing it the other way for a long time. But, you will be gratefully surprised at how freeing it is, because in time, you will believe in your heart the importance of answering their words, not the emotions you assign to them. It will be freeing because you’ll give yourself enough time to reflect on your emotions to determine if the person’s body language or tone of voice are influencing your reaction or whether their statement is ‘real.’ It will be freeing because then you are telling your truth — not what you think they need or want to hear. That’s when you can have open, honest communication.

These related posts may also help:
The Slicing and Dicing and Mincing of Words
The Ripple Effect of Loving Someone Who Drinks Too Much

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Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

3 Responses to Better Communication | Try Answering the Words, Not Your Emotions

  1. Bill White says:

    Lisa…thanks so much for the post. You write very well, which all too often isn’t the case in the blogosphere. I very much appreciate your mission. Man, if anyone thinks you can excuse emotional and mental pathology as a substance issue is being treated, think again. Looking forward to more. Bill

  2. This is an excellent post that offers a slightly different perspective on something I often tell my clients. There are many times that people ask/say something that has an underlying, implied message. The question or comment may seem innocent or straightforward, but it’s not.

    I find this is often a problem with clients who have emotionally abusive mothers. They find it hard to prove that their mothers are being manipulative or emotionally abusive because what their mothers say is innocuous, on the face of it. Repeating the statement out of context can lead to puzzlement–what’s wrong with that? But there’s an undercurrent that’s implied, not directly stated. As you suggested in your post, I encourage my clients to respond only to what’s actually been said, not to what has been implied.

    • So appreciate your comment, Jennifer. You’ve described beautifully what it’s like to be raised by an emotionally abusive mother (or father, for that matter), “They find it hard to prove that their mothers are being manipulative or emotionally abusive because what their mothers say is innocuous, on the face of it. Repeating the statement out of context can lead to puzzlement–what’s wrong with that? But there’s an undercurrent that’s implied, not directly stated.” This is also a very accurate description of the emotional abuse addicts|alcoholics impose on spouses and children (or siblings and parents) when they are not in recovery.

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