No defence left but to attack

I have been a fan of The Archers for about 30 years. Like every good, long-standing soap, it mixes funny story lines with both hard hitting and gentle ones. One of the harder ones right now is Alice’s alcoholism. There is history between Alice and her sister-in-law, Emma, so the latter’s motives may not have been that pure, but when she went to share her concerns with her brother, Alice’s husband, and Alice herself, things did not go well. The conversation quickly deteriorated into anger and accusation. For all of us who sometimes have to communicate a difficult message, there are valuable lessons in their exchange.

For a while, Alice has been drinking to excess. Now she’s started hiding it from the people closest to her. She’s definitely got a problem. A part of her knows it. Another part is probably too frightened to admit it to herself yet, let alone anyone else. So, when Emma told her straight that she’s got a problem, that she’s an alcoholic, Alice attacked to defend herself. Knowing each other’s vulnerabilities, the resulting slanging match left them both aggrieved and angry and their relationship in tatters.

What went wrong and how could they do it differently?

The first thing Emma could have done was to stop and take a moment to reflect. Why did she want to say anything? What was her real motivation? I have an over-developed sense of responsibility. More than once people have told me about someone else’s misdemeanour and before I’ve blinked, I’ve taken on board the responsibility to sort it out. I remember an employee reporting a colleague’s behaviour. With hindsight, I can see the behaviour might have been a little irritating but not really problematic and the hiccups around her performance were just that, hiccups. But instantly I felt like I had been handed something I had to fix. I acted and had a word. Probably feeling hurt and alienated, the person in question quickly started looking for another job. Not the outcome I wanted. A better plan would have been to stop and reflect. Why had the employee raised the behaviour in the first place? What was their motivation? What was driving my need to act? What did I believe the real issue was, or even if there was one? What was my goal? Even just a few minutes answering these questions would have achieved a very different approach and probably a better result. And imagine how important it is to get it right if the discussion is about concerns over someone’s mental wellbeing.

Next, Emma visited at a moment that suited her and started the conversation straightaway. She wanted to talk to her brother alone, but Alice was home too. Feeling blind-sided the couple instantly went on the defensive. “There’s nothing you can say to me that Alice can’t hear too.” The conversation has barely started and already the barriers are up on both sides. How much better to slow down and wait for the right moment.

Not able to get her brother alone, Emma waded in and said she thought Alice had a drink problem. Any care and concern she may have been feeling at the outset vapourised in the face of the aggressively defensive response. Then the slanging match kicked off and accusations and insults from their history were thrown by both sides. Alice’s problem with alcohol got completely lost and no one cared about the experience of the other.

If Emma had been really concerned about Alice’s wellbeing, she might have begun by just asking how she was. Listening attentively while giving her the space to talk might well have given her a better opening to express her concerns and show care for Alice. I’ve learnt two really important things as a psychotherapist. First, however certain I think I am, I am not inside the other person’s head. Instead of making assumptions about what’s going on for them, I need to take the time to enquire and really listen. Second, the client is on their own path. If they are not yet ready, pushing hard won’t work. It will simply trigger their defences. Instead I need to focus my energies on making it a safe space for them, one in which they feel there is a genuine desire to understand their experience. If Alice isn’t ready to recognise her problem, throwing it at her as an accusation is not going to get anyone anywhere and her angry response is a very understandable reaction to what must have felt like a threatening and judgemental environment.

So how could Emma have tackled it better. Based on their history, I’m not convinced Emma’s motivation for talking to Alice or her husband was pure. But assuming it was, a more constructive approach might have been simply to have found a mutually convenient moment to spend time together and listen. With genuine interest, Emma could have gently drawn out Alice’s experience. Without accusation or forcing her own opinions and perceptions on Alice, Emma could have shared her own experience of Alice at the moment. With this approach, whether she takes it on board in the moment or not, the chances of Alice reflecting later are much greater.

Getting tricky conversations wrong can have a devastating effect on relationships. Of course, no one is going to get it all right all the time. The example at the start is by no means the only mistake I’ve made! But if I slow down, take the time to listen and engage with the experiences of the other person, the chances of a good outcome go up.

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By Cathy Connan

Communication strategist for businesses large and small. Love riding horses and walking my dogs.