During Heart Month, we get lots of reminders about our lifestyle risk factors and options for healthier tradeoffs. But what do we do if it’s not our own health habits we’re concerned about? How do we talk to a loved one about heart health? Maybe your son has a daily drive-thru habit, or your sister smokes a pack a day of cigarettes, or you’re worried about your parent’s sedentary lifestyle?
According to Jose Bonilla, a licensed clinical social worker with the UVA Heart and Vascular Center, a few strategies for effective communication can help you encourage a change of behavior.
Before You Start Talking
Have Realistic Expectations
Before you start, remember that change is hard. Don’t expect your loved one to fix everything overnight. Remind them – and yourself – that healthy habits don’t happen all at once. You can achieve long-term success through small changes over time.
Begin with Calm & Concern
So, how do you start a conversation like this? Bonilla offers this advice: “A difficult conversation is never easy to begin, and in my opinion, there is no exact right way to start one. However, whenever beginning a sensitive conversation, remain calm. Convey genuine concern rather than judgment. That gives you a better chance of being heard.”
Having the Conversation
Try these nine tips when talking to a loved one about heart health.
1. Remember that resistance is normal.
Accept where your loved one is at the current moment. Realize that the harder you push, the harder they may push back. Bonilla stresses that a debate will just move you farther away from the goal.
If your loved one puts you off and says right now is not a good time, accept that. But be assertive and get a commitment about setting up a different time and place to talk.
2. Avoid fact-finding and preaching.
Encourage an open-ended dialogue. Be careful not to judge or accuse – keep an attitude of genuine curiosity and be patient. Listen to the family member and avoid thinking about your response while the family member is talking. Your loved one will be able to determine whether or not you’re listening by your facial cues.
3. Remain objective.
Try to leave your emotions out of it when you’re talking to a loved one about their heart health. Bonilla says this is one of the hardest things to do in these conversations with loved ones. Emotions make up a large part of close relationships, especially when you see a family member hurting themselves with unhealthy behavior.
Contrary to what we might think, however, our emotions will not help change behavior in the long term. Yes, your family member might change out of guilt and then hold resentment. But ultimately, inauthentic behavior usually leads to relapse.
4. Have empathy.
This will convey that you have compassion. Consider how hard it is for you to change your own behaviors. We have to acknowledge that embarking on new behaviors can feel scary.
5. Model the desired behavior.
Don’t just express concern and desire for a new behavior. Try to model the desired behavior as well. If you want your family member to eat healthier, you can begin by doing so yourself.
Need Ideas for Simple Healthy Changes?
Check out our “Make One Change” infographic.
6. Acknowledge a fear of change.
Acknowledge that people have fear of change and a fear of failure. Those fears can drive behaviors.
7. Be flexible.
For example, accept it as a start if the family member is willing to change just one behavior at first. Incremental change can be very effective; change doesn’t always have to be cold turkey.
8. Know when to pull back & set limits.
Accept when it’s time to pull back. Avoid being upset or blaming yourself. Ultimately, your loved one’s behavior is not yours to change. Consider joining a support group for loved ones.
Bonilla offers this example: “I recall several years back working with a mother of an alcoholic who would tell me that she would buy the alcohol for her son so he would not go out and possibly fall or get hurt on the street as he went to procure the substance. My advice to her was to not enable the son any longer, and when she felt helpless in how to help him, to instead go to an Al-Anon meeting, which is for family members of alcoholics. After a long while she took me up on the suggestion and there she learned that it was not her job to heal the son and that he needed to be primarily responsible for getting better. And yes, she stopped feeling guilty, which led to no longer enabling his alcoholic behaviors.”
9. Know your limits.
Know when the situation goes beyond your scope. At that point, a professional may need to be involved — suggest that to your loved one. Sometimes unhealthy behaviors have deeper roots, with well-rehearsed, dysfunctional thought patterns that a professional can best address.