How to Talk to a Loved One Who Needs Help

If you’re worried about someone who seems to be struggling and you want to try to help, it is essential to do so in a way that does not trigger your loved one’s resistance.  Here are some useful strategies to consider:

1.  Put your pitch together carefully for a one-best-time attempt.  Repeated attempts are usually construed as hounding, which increases resistance to the idea of getting help.  It’s also a good idea to keep the conversation reasonably short – make your points as concisely as possible, then give your loved one an easy exit.  

2.  Make your attempt when you and your loved one are both calm and able to focus.  Concerns of this type which get raised during an argument may get written off as part of the fight, rather than being seen as a legitimate concern worthy of further thought.

3.  Ask for permission to bring up the subject.  It shows respect and allows the person to maintain a sense of control rather than feeling ambushed.  If you get a “yes,” this already shows some receptiveness, which is a good way to start.  If you get turned down, ask if you could talk another time.  If you still get turned down and you have no choice, go ahead, but be very concise and end as quickly as possible.  Try to do this only once.

4.  Express your concern and support.  The person will need reassurance that your intent is to help, not criticize. (He or she will probably still feel criticized anyway, but at least you can try.)

5.  Share factual observations that are objective indicators of a problem.  Let the facts tell the story – try to keep yourself out of the way.  Your goal is to leave your loved one thinking about the issues rather than reacting to you.

6.  Express respect for the person’s ability to evaluate information and make quality decisions.  While the person’s judgment may be impaired due to substance abuse or mental illness, you will still get further by respecting his/her right to self-determination, and keeping your focus on the facts that are most useful and relevant. 

7.  Empathize.  Try to understand your loved one’s position as much as possible; when people feel listened to, they are more receptive.  It also gives you needed information for tailoring your pitch for greater effectiveness.

8.  Avoid diagnosing, judging, or blaming.  These tactics have no upside.  If you’re wrong, you’ll get shut out completely, and even if you’re right, you’ll probably just trigger defensiveness and resistance to the idea of getting help. 

9.  Avoid ultimatums unless you are fully prepared to follow through.  This is a desperation move which is often made too early, at the cost of future credibility.

10. Offer your assistance if you wish, but don’t press the issue.  Proceed only if invited.

11.  Encourage others who know the person to express their concern as well, using these guidelines and their best judgment.  The more people your loved one hears it from, the harder it will be to stay in denial.

If it is absolutely necessary to keep bringing up a concern (as in marital issues, substance abuse, or other seriously deteriorating problems), try to keep it as minimal and consequence-oriented as possible.  For example, “I still feel the way I told you before, we’re talking even less, and I’m really scared about where the marriage seems to be going.  I’d feel a lot better if we could go see somebody.”

If you use strategies like these and the person of your concern cannot or will not follow through, at least you’ll know you made your best effort.  That’s all any of us can ever do.

Copyright © 2007.  Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Some other articles you may find useful:

When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy?

Depression Series, Part One: Depression -- Myths and Facts

Depression Series, Part Two: Who Gets Depressed, and Why? 

Depression Series, Part Three: What to Do about Depression 

Depression Series, Part Four: When Someone You Love is Depressed  

How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance 


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