Being able to communicate well is an important aspect of meal support.  However, there is more to communication than just swapping information.

When people are living with an eating disorder, the eating disorder mindset can sometimes try to erode the bond and trust which was previously shared.  Individuals can become resistant, defensive and sometimes angry.

When providing meal support we understand that sometimes situations can become heated, frustrating and overwhelming.  Taking a breath and establishing good communication skills can help you reinforce the bond you share with your loved one and establish greater trust.

Use your communication skills to work toward a collaborative approach with your loved one.  Invite opportunities for conversation.

  • When people communicate they are conveying both a message and their emotions.
  • Listen carefully to try and understand what is being said and what is being felt by your loved one.
  • Ask open, enquiring questions which can help your loved one feel comfortable to talk more.
  • Take notice of and affirm your loved one’s strengths and achievements which can help to make them stronger.
  • Try repeating back what your loved has said in your own words to show that you are listening and have empathy.
  • Summarise a conversation to ensure you have understood what has been discussed.

Being aware of the communication occurring in your current situation can help you determine what is working well and what might need to change. This can be particularly helpful during meal support. 



What is the communication like in your home environment?

Do people talk over each other?

Is there a time when everyone sits down together to talk?

Does the communication change when the discussion is eating disorder related or at meal times?

If so, how does it change?




Listening is an active skill

Listening to someone seems like a very easy thing to do.  However, there is a difference between hearing and listening.  Sometimes we let words flow over us rather than actively listening to what is being said.  Sometimes we don’t really want to hear things because they might be hurtful or challenging so we don’t listen fully.

Active listening requires us to intentionally listen not only to what is being said but also for the feelings being expressed.

Active listening can take more effort than talking so it does take some practice.

When actively listening for feelings take note of verbal and non-verbal communication such as facial expression, intonation and gestures.

  • Be mindful of whether the verbal and non-verbal communication are conveying the same thing.
  • Often the main messages people are wanting to convey are being expressed the loudest through non-verbal communication.

For example:   They may be saying YES, but their head is nodding NO or visa-versa.

Open ended questions:

Open ended questions usually start with ‘how’ or ‘what’ and invite people to give a more detailed response.  This can lead to greater understanding by all parties.

Although a ‘why’ question is also an open-ended question, the use of the word ‘why’ can sometimes lead people to be defensive and if used too often it can feel like an interrogation.

For example

“Why didn’t you go to your doctor’s appointment today?” may elicit a more positive response if it starts with ‘how’

How can we make sure you don’t miss another doctor’s appointment?”

Try to stick with ‘how’ or ‘what’ questions such as:

“How can we work together on this?”

“How would you like me to support you with lunch today?”

“What strategies could you use to manage this anxiety?”

“What would help to distract you after your meal?”



An affirmation is a supportive comment that is made about something positive your loved one has done.

Affirmations should be made in the moment and should be relevant to the situation.  Avoid big statements like “I love everything about you” and stick with smaller noticeable aspects of your loved one’s behaviour.

Affirming statements can show that you understand and appreciate what your loved one is dealing with.  Acknowledging the small steps they have taken can have a positive response as it builds their confidence.

  • Use compliments or praise.

“You handled that situation so well.”

  • Acknowledge positive personal traits such as patience, persistence, flexibility or humour

“I’m impressed that you are have been flexible enough to try something new  ”

  • Notice when a loved one has used their strengths

“You’ve been so brave acknowledging your food rituals.”


Reflective listening/paraphrasing

When using reflective listening what you are doing is repeating back what someone has said in your own words.  This can be a good way of confirming your understanding of what has been communicated by your loved one.  It shows empathy and demonstrates that you are interested and trying to understand their thoughts and feelings.

For example:

“It sounds like the eating disorder is making you feel anxious about eating all your breakfast today.”

“So, you’re saying you feel anxious about eating dinner tonight.”

“It sounds like you’re eating disorder is quite strong today.”

“From your point of view post meal time has been the most difficult for you today.”

“Let me check I have understood how you’re feeling about your uncle coming to dinner tonight.”

The opportunity for your loved one to hear what they have said reflected to them can also be useful for their own self-reflection.  When you hear something in someone else’s words it can shed light on a situation and help you to see things differently.  Allow your loved one to respond so they can confirm whether you have understood them, and if not, explain their feelings further.


Summarising is used when a conversation comes to an end to sum up what has been discussed.  Summarising can be helpful to ensure everyone is on the same page about the conversation that has taken place, and it can also be used to move forward with an action.

For example:

“We discussed that you would like to talk with the Therapist about the challenges you are having during the post meal phase.  We also discussed that we would talk again after your appointment about the strategies we can put in place?  Do you agree with that?”

It can take time to get used to using these different communication skills but with practice they will become more natural for you.  If you would like to know more about the different communication skills you can contact EDQ on (07) 3844 6055 or to discuss attending a Fostering Recovery workshop or some personal coaching sessions.

Compassionate and calm communication

Eating disorders can distort emotions and heighten feelings.  Small things can turn into big explosions very quickly.  Be mindful not only of the words you are speaking but the way in which you are saying them, and the non-verbal cues you are displaying.

Facial expression, stance, tone, volume of your voice, gestures and attitude all play a part in the way we communicate.

You could try:

  • varying the volume and tone of your voice
  • maintaining eye contact
  • creating an equal stance – be on the same level (eg. both sitting)
  • avoid authoritative or dismissive gestures (pointing fingers, rolling eyes etc)
  • avoid exaggerated, non-authentic volume, tone or body language which might seem too upbeat.
  • demonstrate open, curious and interested facial expressions


Sometimes, trying to maintain a compassionate and calm approach when it comes to communicating with your love one can be difficult.  If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or frustrated it is ok to let your loved one know that you need to walk away from a conversation, take a breath and continue the discussion later.

“I care about you and I can hear that this is important to you.  I do want to discuss this with you further.  However, I am feeling frustrated with the way things are going and I need to step away from this conversation for the moment. Let’s talk about it further this afternoon.”

When you pick up the conversation later you could say something like

“I’m sorry I was frustrated this morning. I felt I wasn’t handling the conversation well.  I do want to understand how you are feeling about this, would you like to talk to me further about it now?”

Admitting your own vulnerabilities, mistakes and frustrations shows your loved one that you are not perfect and it’s safe to admit that.


Meal support can be difficult and stressful for all parties and sometimes we can say or do things that escalate situations.

It’s ok if that happens.

The best thing to do in these situations is take some time to examine what was unhelpful in the way things were communicated, learn from it and try a different way of communicating next time.