Five steps to help you speak to someone you’re concerned about

Talking to a friend or family member about what you believe is problematic drinking can be difficult. But it’s worth it, says Dru Jaeger, and they’ll probably be glad you did.

Portrait of Dru Jaeger
By Dru Jaeger
Dru Jaeger is co-founder of Club Soda, the mindful drinking movement, where he designs and leads programmes to help people become more confident in their personal and social lives. He’s also the author of How to Be A Mindful Drinker.

It’s human nature to want to help others, especially those closest to us. When we think the people we care about are experiencing difficulties with drinking, we feel the urge to help them – but it can be hard to work out how to approach them.

Sometimes, it seems obvious to us what our loved ones should do, and we can feel deeply hurt or affected by their poor choices. We can end up watching someone’s problem drinking for years and feel powerless to do anything. And our resentment and annoyance can grow.

Ultimately, it’s better to hold onto the belief that the people we love can change. But frustrating as it is, we also must accept that they’ll only begin to change when they’re ready. Here are some steps that might guide how you approach speaking to the person.

Many people who’ve come out the other side of problematic drinking say they wish someone had spoken to them – even if they’re unsure how they would’ve reacted.

Go for conversation, not confrontation

If you’re concerned that someone’s drinking is having a negative impact on them, don’t ignore your impulse to say something. Many people who’ve come out the other side of problematic drinking say they wish someone had spoken to them – even if they’re unsure how they would’ve reacted.

But remember that you’re not staging an intervention, you’re just having a conversation. So find an opportunity to chat in a relaxed and friendly way, and avoid a dramatic confrontation.

Whatever else you do, avoid talking to them about the problem when they’re drunk. Aside from risking an uncontained emotional reaction, they may not remember anything that’s said. Wait until they’re sober and you’re both able to approach the subject with a clearer head.

Listen with empathy

For many people, problem drinking is only incidentally to do with alcohol itself. Your loved one may have turned to drinking because of worries at work, relationship difficulties or pressure to fit in with others. Depression and anxiety are common triggers, so ask open questions about what’s going on for them in their life.

Listen with empathy. Give them space to speak and reflect back what they have said. Make sure you hear about their life from their perspective, even if you think their view of the world seems distorted. You can, of course, tell them your worries but it’s especially important to resist telling them what to do.

Remind them about their positive self

If someone has been struggling with drinking for a while, they can stop believing that they can change. Many people who are unhappy with their drinking want to act differently, and most will have tried to cut down or stop before. But doing it alone is hard, and each of their failed attempts can knock their confidence.

They may also have forgotten what life was like before drinking became a problem. So you can remind them of their best selves. And encourage them to follow through on any solutions they come up with.

If you want to be a good friend to them, don’t expect one-off conversations to change everything. It’s never your job to solve their problems for them, but you can ask them how things are going.

You may be tempted to nag them, in the hope of forcing them to change. But a more helpful approach may be to enlist them in solving your problems, rather than focusing on theirs.

Ask them to help you

If the person you’re worried about is your partner or a family member you live with, tackling the problem can feel especially difficult. As with any relationship issue, talking it through can help.

It’s tempting to unload your anger onto your loved ones, especially if their behaviour has hurt you. You may be tempted to nag them, in the hope of forcing them to change. But a more helpful approach may be to enlist them in solving your problems, rather than focusing on theirs.

Here’s an example. Imagine your partner regularly stays up late drinking, disturbs you when getting into bed, and then keeps you awake with their snoring. You could talk about your difficulty in getting a good night’s sleep, and ask them what they can do to help you. Keep the conversation centred on your needs, rather than their drinking, and they may find a way to change that works for both of you.

Seek professional support

None of this is easy, and change can take an enormous amount of patience. If you’re adversely affected by someone else’s problem drinking, you must care for yourself. This is especially true if you live with them and have children together. Your ability to look after others is compromised if you don’t look after yourself.

It’s easy to become complicit in enabling someone else’s behaviour, and you may need professional support to see this clearly. Ask for the help you need. Problem drinking is one of the biggest challenges you can face in any relationship, but it’s also an issue that many people have overcome.

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