Communicating with toxic family members can feel like walking on eggshells. When your toxic family members refuse to change, it can be hard to know how to handle such a frustrating and hurtful situation. However, while you may prefer to avoid them altogether, for many reasons, you may need to speak with them. Fortunately, you can learn how to mitigate the damage from their toxic communication style. As a result, you can convey your main message with the proper knowledge and tools.
What Makes It Difficult to Communicate With Toxic Family Members
Few things hold more potential to be a recurring source of emotional pain in our lives than talking with toxic family members. When you have an unhealthy relationship with a toxic person, it can feel like walking through life on eggshells — their moods and triggers range, which they often impose on unsuspecting victims.
For instance, you may expect them to discount your feelings, distress, viewpoints, experiences, or accomplishments. And just like that, you have a situation that makes it difficult to know how to communicate with your toxic family in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling frustrated and upset.
With the toxic family member, conversations often turn for the worst because of the following:
- They hold no bar when expressing their judgments and criticisms of others
- Their messages often come across as critical and demanding even when they claim their motivations as goodwill
- They always assume the worst about you, or they often doubt your intentions
- There is usually a power imbalance in the relationship, and you might feel as though you lack control
- You might feel judged, or that person will always know what is best for you
- Their untreated mental health illness may make them difficult to communicate with
- Attempting to navigate their emotions to get them to be more reasonable and open-minded
- Their religious beliefs conflict with yours, making it difficult to discuss personal spiritual needs and concerns
- They have a lot of power in your life
- You feel like there is no escape from them and their demands or expectations for you
- You’re afraid of what will happen if you don’t comply with their demands or expectations for you because they can be very manipulative
- They don’t understand how their behavior affects you
- They won’t listen when you try to explain your feelings
- They often use guilt as a weapon
- There is a lot of shame attached to the situations you discuss
- You don’t want to disappoint them in any way
Set the Foundation: Preparing Yourself for the Conversation
Before you communicate with a toxic family member, prepare yourself. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, before you initiate a conversation, take time to plan and evaluate the situation. Subsequently, formulate your approach. Next, consider the communication style of the toxic person. Understanding their communication style will immensely help you better communicate with them.
If you want to prevent your communications with family members from being toxic, you must take specific steps. First, make sure you take care of yourself before engaging them. Moreso, consider the boundaries you want to set. Before contacting them, review the main topics you wish to discuss and information to avoid sharing.
Know the Toxic Family Member’s Communication Style
Toxic family members often employ specific tactics to dominate the conversation. Their common tactics often involve manipulation, intimidation, guilt-tripping, and threats. Their tactics sum up their communication style. Before communicating with them about anything, be aware of their communication style. To best handle their tactics, we recommend reviewing the common communication styles of toxic people:
#1. Combative or Argumentative
Some problematic family members may adopt an aggressive style of communication. They deem such a style as being honest. Yet, we can express our emotions honestly without being argumentative or confrontational. Unfortunately, such people take pleasure in nourishing anger and releasing it onto others.
When dealing with people of this type, maintain a neutral tone and remain polite. If the situation escalates and they become disrespectful, remain calm yet firm. Put some distance between you and them to help deescalate the situation.
Passive-aggressive people tend to make snide comments or backhanded compliments to hide their insecurities or envy. Essentially, they use indirect communication to cut others’ self-esteem and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. With a passive-aggressive person, you can expect sarcasm, cynicism, and pettiness.
It’s better to directly address a passive-aggressive family member’s mean words or deeds in a gentle manner than to ignore them. Doing this will prevent the situation from escalating into an all-out argument.
#3. The Judge
Judgmental people often try to pass off criticism as a concern. When they criticize, they mask it as knowing what’s best for everyone. They place unrealistic expectations on people around them. It can make it difficult for people to be themselves when around judgmental individuals.
You can set yourself free from judgmental people by embracing your own story. When you are confident in your truth and comfortable sharing it, critical people can’t trigger your insecurities. When you have to talk to judgemental family members, trust yourself and your decisions.
#4. Extremely Sensitive or Avoidant
Many find sensitive or avoidant personalities challenging to address. These types prefer to avoid confrontations or difficult conversations. They choose to hold grudges and not express their hurts directly. Their communication style makes it extremely difficult to mend severed relationships, and it often leaves everyone else feeling like the bad guy.
Take the time to speak with this avoidant person privately and with an open heart. Focus on their positive attributes when it comes time to conversate with them. Yes, it may take some vulnerability. However, the risk can pay off in the long run. If not, release any resentments and accept the current condition of the relationship.
#5. Agitator or Gossiper
Instigators and gossipers THRIVE on seeing the family drama unfold. Secretly, they take pleasure from getting under your skin, or worse yet, pitting you against a loved one. Essentially, gossipers, feeling insecure, turn to instigation to assert their importance.
To combat these people’s incendiary tactics, dilute the credibility of their slander with facts or platitudes. Alternatively, if they put you at odds with another family member, call them out in front of the other person. Moreover, don’t allow their gossip to distract you from the purpose of your conversation with them. Stay on topic. Respond to their gossip with a positive comment, such as “Oh. That doesn’t seem like Jason. Let’s finish discussing the real issue at hand.” The more you let it roll off your back, the quicker they let it go.
Suggestions to Communicate With a Toxic Family Member
Several approaches can help you communicate with your toxic family members, including:
#1. Maintain an Emotional Distance
The most important thing you can do when communicating with toxic family members is to maintain an emotional distance. As you engage with the toxic family member, keep a level head so that they cannot emotionally manipulate you. To do so, place some emotional distance so that you can think clearly and make decisions that serve your best interests. At the same time, you don’t want to push them away from the conversation. Balance is the key.
Some tips for establishing emotional boundaries that will help you communicate with your toxic family member more effectively include:
- Remember you hold agency over your life and decisions
- Acknowledge your feelings without blame or judgment
- Learn how to say no without feeling guilty
- Know when it’s okay to walk away from the discussion
- Make a list of everything you want to say
- Be precise with your words and avoid saying something rash
- If you sense that the communication will be contentious or hostile, be sure to take care of yourself first and foremost
#2. Allow Yourself to Grieve the Relationship
As you decide to communicate with toxic family members, permit yourself to grieve the relationship. Some people were born into healthier families than others. It is recommended to do the work it takes to accept their behavior for what it is and then let go of any hope that it will change. It’s important to remember that you have a choice in this. You are not obligated to continue this toxic relationship with these parents.
#3. Keep Things in Perspective
Don’t let a toxic person drag you down into the gutter with them. When communicating with a toxic family member, try to remember that they’re only human, too. And humans sometimes make mistakes. Unfortunately, too many toxic people lack the tools to cope with life’s stressors without turning to maladaptive actions.
Though you may find it tempting to fire back when someone purposely triggers you, remember that you are dealing with a sick person. You can show them compassion without turning into their punching bag. Keep in mind their wounded state. Consequently, limit your contact with them or bring another person to help facilitate the conversation.
#4. Prepare for Negotiations
If your goal in a given interaction is to achieve a specific result, often the process involves negotiation. As you prepare for such a conversation, plan accordingly. Come to the discussion with a clear idea of your intentions, acceptable concessions, and bottom lines. Failure to do so will result in frustration on both sides as no one will find the outcome satisfying. For there to be any progress, both parties must feel as if they are being heard and understood by the other person.
Having a clear solution or intent in mind makes it easier for you to determine if the other party’s explanation makes sense for you and conforms to your expectations. Such an approach permits you to hear and weigh the other party’s opinion. Ultimately, what matters is that all parties involved remain open-minded and willing to work together toward finding a mutually satisfying resolution.
#5. Find Common Ground
If possible, arrange a meeting at a neutral location. Consider choosing a location that minimizes any distractions. It creates a more relaxed atmosphere and sets the stage for a good conversation. Essentially, it will serve you the most to agree on a specified time frame for communication and where this communication will take place (i.e., in person, via email, family therapy). Finding common ground also means starting with neutral talking points that allow all parties to build from that point.
#6. Take an Assertive Approach
Being assertive means speaking up and being firm with the person rather than being passive and allowing them to attack you verbally. It’s important not to play the victim card or take the low road. Toxic people will try to bring others down to push their agenda. Instead, establish your boundaries with them and tactfully address the critical matter meant for discussion.
#7. Prepare for Pushback
Toxic people enjoy maintaining control over others and circumstances. They carry that same attitude to their conversations with others. Expect them to resist hearing your input. For instance, they may try to blame others or make excuses for their behavior or minimize their actions by saying they didn’t mean it that way or didn’t intend any harm. They may try to change the subject or avoid answering questions directly or accuse you of overreacting or being too sensitive. They may even attack your character motivation.
When they push back and refuse to listen to your side of the story, resist the urge to get angry when you communicate with them. It’s vital that you remain calm and collected during these conversations. Subsequently, arm yourself with patience, facts, and even back up when dealing with such people. These factors can convince them to accommodate your requests.
#8. Avoid Assumptions
Do not make assumptions about the person’s thoughts or feelings. You may be wrong, and the consequences could be disastrous. Make it a point to ask rather than assume. Use open-ended questions that require more than “yes” or “no” answers and inquire about the person’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings before making assumptions of any sort. Also, make sure to use active listening. This will help you understand their perspective.
#9. Accept the Reality of Change
Understand that your relationship with this person won’t change overnight. Change takes time, especially when it comes to toxicity in a family. Thus, expect to play the bigger person when communicating with them. Subsequently, whenever you deem it necessary, you can end or limit the terms of this relationship. As long as you consider this line of communication worthwhile, remember that you are doing this for your progress and ultimate well-being, too.
#10. Plan an Exit Strategy
An exit strategy is a way to avoid the intensity of a toxic family member and thus, preserve your mental health. Knowing what you will do ahead of time will save you from having to figure out an exit strategy in the middle of an argument. Beforehand, work out the logistics of getting away from a toxic family member, such as where to go and who can help you get there safely. Some solid exit strategies include:
- Changing the subject of discussion to a neutral topic
- Silencing your phone to avoid their calls
- Taking a break when you get overwhelmed
- Using humor to withdraw yourself mentally from the discussion
When you see significant signs of trouble in a conversation with a toxic family member, it is recommended to disengage as soon as possible. You don’t owe anyone your energy or time, especially if they wish to abuse it.
The healthiest (and perhaps safest) choice is to cut off communication with toxic family members altogether. However, that is not always a viable option. If you can’t sever ties with them, it is imperative you not let their words etch away at your happiness and self-worth. No matter what they say, no matter what they do, keep in mind that it has nothing to do with you. You are perfect exactly as you are, just the way you are right now. When all else fails, know and accept yourself — both the good and not-so-good. Such knowledge will make it easier for you to determine the best approach to communicate with a toxic family member. At White House Recovery and Detox, we believe that each person has the power to overcome addiction. Every day, people prove this by finding help at our treatment facility. We can help you achieve long-term sobriety. Call us today at (800) 510-5393.