How to have courageous conversations

This article was developed in partnership with Fraser Health.

You can be an important connection in the life of someone experiencing substance use-related challenges. Whether you are a parent, a friend, a partner, or a colleague, the conversations you have can help prevent an overdose. Starting the conversation may not be easy, and it may be tough to find the right thing to say, but just coming together can lead to effective overdose prevention.

It may take many talks. Things may be said that hurt or are hard to hear. It may not go the way you want. However, talking openly and honestly about substance use with care and compassion is a crucial first step, and one that you can take with the people you care about.

Get prepared to talk

This page provides general advice on having courageous conversations about substance use. It does not include all of the individual circumstances that influence complex problems associated with substance use-related challenges. This information is an alternative to professional medical care. If you or someone you know needs overdose prevention or substance use support, talk to your family doctor or dial 8-1-1, a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support.

When is the best time to have a talk?

Choose a time when the person is free from distraction and isn’t feeling tired or rushed. Make sure the person has eaten and is hydrated, as hunger and thirst can often affect mood. Avoid starting the conversation when you are feeling upset, angry, or have other strong emotions.

Where is the best place to have a talk?

Choose a place that feels comfortable for the person. Switch off your phone so you won’t be interrupted. Sitting beside or at an angle to the person is sometimes better than sitting directly in front of the person, as it is less confrontational. Some people may find it’s easier to engage in a conversation when they are moving and engaging in activity. It can help to go for a walk to talk things over.

How to start the conversation

Invite the person to talk. You might ask, “Is it OK if I talk to you about something important?” Set aside your worries or fears and speak from a place of kindness, care and respect, and not one of judgement. You could say, “I want you to know that I care deeply about you and that I’m here no matter what. I see that you’re struggling with something. Please help me understand what’s happening.”

The next step is to listen, without judgement. Do not blame or shame the person you are speaking with – it will shut the conversation down promptly. Instead, work together to create a shared understanding of the issue. Ask what else might help.

What to do when the talk didn’t go the way you wanted

Shake out any tension you may have. Be gentle with yourself and your thoughts.

Don’t give up. It may take many talks. The most important thing is to continue to support and share that you care about the person.

Keep calm and let it go. Don’t drag the negative aspects of past conversations into future conversations. Keep focused on being there for the person no matter what.

When the person refuses to talk

If the person doesn’t want to talk about substance use or overdose prevention with you, you could…

  • Try to set aside some time each day to talk with the person about other things. Ask open-ended questions and let them know that if they want to talk, you’re happy to listen
  • Find another person they would be comfortable talking with. You could suggest a family member, friend, counsellor or neighbour
  • Try other ways to reach out if talking isn’t working. A letter, email or text may help with youth who may find verbal conversations uncomfortable or confrontational

What else you can do to help save a life

If you or someone you know is experiencing challenges related to substance use, there are steps you can take to stay safer:

  • Carry a naloxone kit and learn how to use it. Find a location where you can get a kit and training
  • Learn how to identify and respond to an overdose
  • If you use drugs, look out for yourself and those around you by not using alone. Use an Overdose Prevention or Supervised Consumption Service if there is one in the area. Start with a small amount, then go slowly
  • Call 9-1-1 in case of overdose – the Good Samaritan law can protect people from drug possession charges if they experience or call 9-1-1 after witnessing an overdose

Help is available

If you or someone you know needs overdose prevention or substance use support, talk to your family doctor or dial 8-1-1, a free telephone resource that provides 24/7 non-emergency advice and support.

Resources for conversations with friends and family

Courageous conversations with youth and teens