The Importance of Effective Communication in Eating Disorder Recovery

When helping a family member or friend recover from an eating disorder, the importance of effective communication cannot be underestimated. It’s imperative that you have an accessible communication toolbox. Family members often report that it becomes increasingly challenging to communicate their concerns and thoughts with loved ones as symptoms progress.

With effective communication, we actively contribute to a more positive interaction and constructive outcome.

Individuals struggling with eating disorders will often report that meaningful conversations were crucial to their recovery. Our most effective communication tool is validation. Validation helps us to listen and truly hear, accept and guide without judgment and most importantly of all, ensure our loved ones feel supported throughout treatment and recovery.

Here are five proposed ways you can use effective communication to validate yourself or someone else.

1) Be Fully Present

This practice includes making eye contact, nodding or showing signs of active listening, and remaining focused. This is not the time to do something else like worry, look around, etc. While being present, we must be giving our full attention.

2) Accurate Reflection

This mode of communication is exactly what it sounds like! Practice reflecting one’s thoughts and feelings directly back to them. If your loved one says, “I’m having problems eating,” try saying, “You’re having problems eating.” When you become a “human mirror,” your loved one will feel heard.

3) Read Between The Lines

Search for the underlying content or meaning your loved one is trying to express. If a loved one says, “my heart is racing” reply with “you are really anxious right now.” By reading between the lines you are helping your loved one express what they may not yet be able to verbalize or understand.

4) Validate Based on Biological Dysfunction

The binge eating disorder brain is telling your loved one, “I need more! more!” Try responding with, “ I know you feel like you can’t satisfy yourself and feel anxious about how much you are eating.” Meanwhile, the anorexic brain is telling your loved one, “I’m not hungry” or “Food feels like lead in my stomach.” Try responding with “I know your stomach doesn’t feel right” or “I know your mind is filled with terrible noise right now.”

5) Radical Acceptance/Genuineness

Family members often express fear that they will make the situation worse by truly expressing themselves. This is not the reality. For individuals struggling with an eating disorder, having a loved one express a thought like “I feel horrible that you are in so much pain” may be quite refreshing.

Genuineness and validation are effective communication styles that are frequently utilized in a treatment setting as well.

A powerful example of genuineness working effectively in treatment comes from Dr. Laura Hill from The Center for Balanced Living. Dr. Hill writes, “At one time David, as a caring therapist, would have said, “Eat this, and you’ll soon feel better.” Now what he says is, “Eating can feel awful. I realize this [food] is probably going to make your thoughts worse if you eat it, AND you still need to eat it. I’m sad that you have to experience it this way, but I’ll eat with you and be with you while you eat through the pain.”

Notice the subtle yet powerful effect of shifting from “BUT you still need to eat it” to “AND you still need to eat it.” AND allows you to empathize with your loved one’s distress while firmly insisting that healthy behavior is expected. Validating someone’s strengths, potentials and feelings are not an agreement with the person’s unhealthy behavior. We are simply expressing through our body language, responses, and level of engagement that we are present, attuned and willing to listen.

For more information about Family Based Treatment options and interventions, reach out to us today.


Hill, L., PdhD, Dagg, D., MA, Levine, M., PhD, & Smolack, L., PhD. (2012). Family Eating Disorders Manuel (Vol. 1). CT: The Center for Balanced Living.