A Step by Step Guide to Intervention

Learn more about Duffy’s step-by-step intervention guide and tips.

Step 1: Learn About Addiction

Chances are, you’re probably so frustrated and discouraged that you just want to intervene now to fix the problem, but action backed by insufficient or inaccurate knowledge will do more harm than good. You need to understand the problem before you understand the solution.

  • The substance of abuse: What are its effects, both long term and short term? How does it affect the user’s health? How is it obtained or abused? Why or how do people get addicted to it?
  • Addiction: What is addiction? What is the process of addiction? What emotional feelings are they going through? You especially need to be familiar with terms like tolerance, chemical dependency, and denial.
  • Enabling: How have I been helping the addiction, and what can I do to stop?

This knowledge is the foundation for not only a successful intervention, but also for a lifelong journey of recovery.

Join a Support Group

During this step, it may be helpful to join a support group–for you. Al-Anon specializes in creating family groups for relatives and friends of those affected by drinking or drugs. You will soon discover you can learn much simply by listening to others (who also have loved ones trapped in addiction) tell their stories of strength, experience, and hope. These new friends will also be able to help you choose the right treatment option and provide practical advice, from the perspective of someone who understands what you are going through.

Step 2: Choose Your Intervention Team

To create a successful intervention, your team needs to include several key players. When you make your list, think about the relationship each person has with the loved one. You can use this information later when you organize the seating arrangement for the intervention and choose a chairperson.

General Principles for Team Members

Choosing your team isn’t a checklist–it’s a process through which you determine which people will best connect with and have the most influence with your loved one. That said, look for team members

  • Who love: The intervention team should be comprised of people who genuinely care about the addict. They are people who want to help the addict towards a better life, to see him reach his full potential, to have him healthy, to have him back again. These people love the addict despite his addiction.
  • Who are significant: These are people who matter to the addict. The addict loves them, respects them, admires them, and needs them–because they are important to him.
  • Who are influential: While everyone in the group carries some influence, certain people have more power than others. These are people the addict deeply respects, such as a boss, teacher, physician, or clergy.
  • Who are witnesses: These are people who have witnessed the damaging effects of drug or alcohol use in the addict’s life. They have been around the person during drinking or using episodes, and have witnessed instances of bizarre or unusual behavior. They have first-hand knowledge of how the disease is affecting the loved one.

Specific People to Include

Consider each of the following people as team members for the intervention, but remember to evaluate each person in light of the general principles for team member.


Your loved one’s spouse should be at the top of the list. However, since the spouse is also the one who has experienced the brunt of the addiction and has gotten into the most fights with the addict, he or she may not have the best relationship with the addict. An intervention is often the prime time for the couple to change their approach, admit failures, and verbalize their love.


Children wield an incredible amount of emotional influence. However, you should think carefully about including them. In general, include only children who are able to understand the situation and who can describe their feelings and the behaviors they’ve seen. Make sure they want to participate in an intervention.

“Adults often wonder if children will be frightened or upset by the intervention. Chances are that they have already been touched by the effects of the  disease on their parent. In the intervention setting, they will finally have the opportunity to speak out and be supported by other adults. This can be a great relief, especially if they have been covering up their own feelings of fear, confusion, rejection, and hurt.” —Vernon. E. Johnson


Sometimes your loved one will have a great respect and great love for their grandparents. Their presence can have great influence and/or emotional support.

Close relatives

If there is a relative that your loved one is especially close to–a brother or sister or uncle–you should think of including them in the intervention team. Even if they have no first-hand experience, it is highly likely they know what’s going on and have at least seen or heard of the situation from other family members.

Best friend

Hearing from somebody outside the family can be especially effective. Often loved ones do not realize that their problem impacts more than just their family.

The doctor

The professional opinion of a physician goes a long way in helping your loved one see the gravity of the problem. Especially for someone abusing prescription drugs, a letter from the doctor confirming there is a problem and recommending treatment can override your loved ones’ belief that the drugs are safe since they’ve been prescribed by a doctor.

The employer

The presence or approval of the boss is extremely helpful, and sometimes pivotal, for a number of reasons:

  • The boss commands respect, so your loved one will be much more likely to listen.
  • The presence of the boss deflates your loved one’s first and most powerful objection to treatment: his job.
  • The boss has the power and leverage to inflict the necessary consequences if the loved one refuses treatment. In fact, your loved might actually be much more likely to accept treatment if his job is at stake.

The employer does not necessarily have to be physically present; in fact, in most cases he or she will not be able to make it to the intervention. However, a written letter from the boss can be just as effective.

Who Not to Include

People who are also chemically dependent

Consult a professional if a person with an active drug or alcohol problem is a necessary component of the intervention process.

People who your loved one strongly dislikes

This is not just someone you know your loved one loves despite bickering or sibling rivalry–this is potent dislike or deeply rooted conflict.

People who would tell your loved one about the intervention ahead of time

Notifying your loved one in advance will give him time to build defenses. Choose someone who can keep a secret.

Step 3: Schedule Your Intervention

Choosing the right time is critical because it affects whether your loved one will listen to or even understand what is being said. In general your loved one should be as sober as possible, so mornings tend to work better, especially for alcoholics. Afternoons and evenings might be riskier times.

When is the Best Time for My Loved One?

Some around-the-clock drinkers and drug users may never be sober. In this case, choose a time when they have the least amount of alcohol or drugs in their system. Ask a family member or a close friend who is familiar with your loved one’s habits to help you schedule the intervention.

Should My Loved One be Dry and Sober?

Not necessarily. Sometimes, it is actually better for your loved not to be entirely sober. You might want your loved one to be slightly under the influence or to have a few sniffs of their drug to prevent intense withdrawal symptoms or cravings. Intense physical pain will distract them from what’s happening during the intervention.

When are Bad Times to Intervene?

Don’t intervene when they’re abstaining at the moment.

If you try to intervene during a period of abstention, your loved one will just insist there’s no problem. An intervention at this point will only put him on the defensive and make it harder for you to intervene in the future when he is no longer abstaining.

Don’t intervene right before an important function or celebration.

A grandfather will never enter treatment the day before his 50th anniversary party. A businessman will not go into treatment the day before his company’s keynote presentation.  If you’re asking a bridesmaid or best man to go into treatment two days before the wedding, you’ll lose that battle too. If you can afford to wait the extra few days, then wait.

When Should We Schedule An Intervention?

When there’s danger. If you believe your loved one is in danger of harming herself or others, then move quickly. However, in such a case, it would be advisable to seek the help of a professional interventionist to ensure the best results possible.

Where is the Best Place to Stage an Intervention?

Choose a place where your loved one will naturally want to be on his best behavior–like a private place at work or the home of someone he respects. You can always ask the boss if you can use a private conference room to hold the intervention.

Sometimes it’s impossible to get him out of the house; in which case, the home will be used.

Remember, an intervention should be kept a surprise for optimal impact. Loved ones who know about the intervention before have time to formulate excuses and brace themselves, dooming the whole process before it even begins.

Step 4: Write the Intervention Letter

In essence, your intervention letter is the intervention.

During the intervention, each person reads his or her letter to your loved one. It’s these letters that lovingly present reality and encourage your loved one to attend treatment.

Why write?

Interventions can be highly emotional meetings, and a written letter will help prevent you from forgetting details or succumbing to emotional outbursts. It’s important that each person on your team write serious, thoughtful, and loving letters.

What makes a great intervention letter?

To make your intervention letter as effective and powerful as possible, follow these principles:

  • Personal: Write the letter directly to your loved one. Use second person (you) when addressing your loved one; use first person when addressing yourself. Use personal stories, first-hand experiences, and personal views.
  • Non-judgmental: The last thing you want to do is use this time to accuse, hurt, or embarrass the addict. State  the facts and your past feelings with love and without bias.
  • Full of love and concern: These should be the overarching theme in your letters; you will have a much higher chance of being able to convince your loved one of treatment, if he or she can sense your love.

What are the components of an intervention letter?

Describe your love

The last thing your loved one expects is gratitude and pride in them. Be specific when describing the ways your loved one is important to you.

For example, don’t just say, “I love you.” Instead describe a funny memory, times you were proud of them, special qualities he has, and things you miss about him since he became addicted. List moments of pride, recall fond memories, highlight good character traits, and talk about the good ole’ days.

Whatever you do, be sincere and avoid empty flattery and clichés. This can be the genuine and real love that will break through their defenses.

Transition to the present

After the declaration of love is established, shift to how the addiction has brought change—to the person you love, to your relationship, to the family.

This can be a simple sentence like, “But lately, you’ve been so different I can barely see the wonderful friend I used to laugh with on Friday nights.”  Or “When you’re sober, you’re the best worker in the office. But lately, I’ve seen less of the friend I know.”

Provide facts and evidence

List specific firsthand and personal examples of how the drug has affected your loved one’s life. Describe what happened when they were under the influence and control of an alcohol or drug during this or that situation. Because this is often the hardest part for your loved one, choose your words carefully. Below are four guidelines to remember when writing this part of the letter:

  • Be Specific. Again, the key is listing specific scenarios with concrete details. If you present reality as it really is,  your loved one will find it more difficult to deny its validity.
  • Be Objective. Be as impartial and objective as possible. Say what you saw and describe how you felt. Don’t use judgmental or angry language.  i.e. “What were you thinking?”
  • Be Brief. Include between two and five examples. Don’t belabor your point.
  • Be Current. Don’t dig up examples from the past; try to stick to scenarios that have occurred in the last couple of months. The only exception would be if something big—like maybe a major car accident—occurred in the past; then it might be worth including.

Make your plea

This is the part where you ask a direct question to your loved one, pleading with him or her to accept the help that is offered—today.

An example might be: “The children want their grandmother back. I want my mother back. Will you please accept the help we’re offering today?” Before you ask this question, however, you should:

  • State your support. Emphasize togetherness. “We are together as a family, and I promise I will do my part.” Or “We as a family are also committed to joining Al-Anon. Together we will heal and grow.”
  • State your belief. Tell them you believe in their recovery—let them know that you know they can make it.
  • Give a sense of purpose. Give them a reason to get sober. This can be as simple as stating you need them: “Mom, I need you in my life.” Or you can paint a positive picture of the future, and give something for them to look forward to. “Tom, I want you standing by me when I get married.” Or “I want to you be the best grandfather for my children.”
  • Provide treatment center details. One person in the team should briefly describe the treatment center(s) selected. Mention special facilities or amenities that will be of interest to your loved one. For example, you  might say, “We’ve spent a lot of time in selecting the best treatment program for you. One of them is a great place in California with special programs for people your age and even a pool. We think you’d really like it. Will you accept this help?”

What is the bottom line?

The last section of the letter is often called the “bottom line” and is usually read only if your loved one refuses treatment.

The bottom line is a list of the ways you promise to no longer support the disease of addiction. (Most people on the team will have unknowingly helped the addiction—such as paying bills or making excuses for the loved one’s behavior, so this is a statement saying you will not continue to enable the addiction any longer. ) This doesn’t mean you will never help your loved one; but it does mean you will no longer support the addiction. You are not punishing them; you’re supporting the right thing. For example, parents might say, “If you don’t get treatment, I can’t pay your bills for you anymore.”

Types of leverage

Leverage is the strength of your position with your loved one that enables you to dispense consequences. Your position, power, influence, and relationship with your loved one all determine what kind of leverage you have.

Here are some types of leverage to consider:

  • Financial Leverage: Refusing to pay the bills, lending money, providing other luxuries, curtailing certain privileges.
  • Emotional Leverage: Speaking of your loved one’s long-standing reputation, the expectations of a beloved deceased grandparent, their potential to succeed.
  • Relational Leverage: Separation between wife and husband, child and parent, grandchildren and grandparents. Each person should select whatever bottom line is appropriate for you. For example, a wife can choose to ask for a separation or divorce to protect her children. A boss can choose to fire an employee to prevent loss of sales.

Bottom lines with teeth

Of course, for this to work, you must be willing to follow-through with your bottom lines if your loved one rejects your plea to enter treatment. If you know you’ll never really do it, don’t include that in your bottom line. Breaking your word will only empower the disease. Here is a sample bottom line:

“Ginny, you’ve been my best friend for over 10 years. I just can’t sit back and watch the addiction take over your life. I’ve made a commitment to support your recovery and not the drinking. For this reason, if you choose not to accept treatment, I can’t lend you money anymore, and I’m not going to make excuses for your behavior to others. I can’t let you stay at my house when you’ve shown up drunk or when you and Jim have fights. I know this is hurting you, but it’s also hurting me—hurting all of us. Let’s avoid this pain. Won’t you accept treatment today?”

Repetition is the key

If you need to use your bottom line during the intervention, make sure to repeat your request for your loved one to accept help and to enter treatment.

Step 5: Practice Your Intervention

So you understand the best way to help your loved one, chosen your intervention team, scheduled when and where the intervention will take place, and you’ve written your intervention letters. Everything is lined up and ready for the big day, and all that’s left is to practice.

Every professional interventionist requires you to practice the intervention—at least once—before the scheduled date. Just as dress rehearsals help detect technical difficulties and unwanted surprises you may not otherwise notice, practicing an intervention ensures the actual intervention runs as smoothly as possible.

Here are some tips for rehearsing the intervention:

Figure out how to get everyone to the location.

It is not uncommon to pick a location slightly different from where you will ultimately end up and then walk together to where the intervention will occur. In this way, even your entrance can project a unified spirit. Some people might have specific roles—such as opening the door or going to get your loved one.

These ideas might look like: “We’re planning to meet two blocks away from Dan’s house. We drive up to the house together and walk to the front door as a group. Sue answers the door, and we all sit in the living room as Tom goes to get Dan.”

Plan the sitting arrangement.

The best seating arrangement is for the loved to sit between people he has a good relationship with and face someone he respects deeply. Those who may have a more inconsistent relationship should sit off to the side. Everyone should look at your loved one.

Select a chairperson.

The chairperson is the leader during the rehearsals and intervention. He is host, guide, and spokesperson. The chairperson should have a calm and focused attitude and be someone your loved one respects.

Determine reading order.

Have someone begin reading who already commands your loved one’s respect. Place anyone who has a more strained relationship with the loved one between two people with strong emotional connections to the loved one. End with a person your loved one strongly cares about, preferably someone who has a strong influence with her.

Read and critique each other’s letters.

During rehearsal, carefully listen to each other’s letters and make suggestions. Eliminate harsh tones and redundancy; then make sure all letters communicate genuine love and concern.

Anticipate objections.

Have one person pretend to be your loved and make objections. Rehearse how you want to answer these objections.

Develop backup plans.

You should prepare for various scenarios such as what will you do if your loved one walks out? Becomes violent? Or refuses treatment?

Repetition is the key

If you need to use your bottom line during the intervention, make sure to repeat your request for your loved one to accept help and to enter treatment.

Step 6: Stage Your Intervention

The day has arrived. It is time to help your loved to find hope and freedom.

Here a few tips:

  • Be early. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the planned time.
  • Stay calm. No matter how much planning has gone into this, nerves will run high. Team members should encourage one another and stay calm.
  • Eliminate distractions. Turn off cell phones, TV, and other electronic devices. From bathroom breaks to letting the dog out, take care of the tiny details to avoid unncessary interruptions.
  • Bring Kleenexes. Reading your letters can be a very emotional experience. Just in case you or someone else becomes overwhelmed, have a box of tissues nearby.
  • Prepare something to drink. Water, coffee or tea helps to relax the atmosphere and make everyone feel more comfortable.

Remember, the whole intervention is one of love, support, and hope. Your love compels you to intervene and stand for what’s right instead of what’s easy. In doing so, you are helping your loved one take the first step towards a successful recovery and a better life.

How do I finish an intervention?

No two interventions are exactly alike, so you should prepare for a variety of responses. Here are some tips on what to do, depending on how your loved one responds.

If your loved one. . .

Agrees to treatment immediately:

Stop reading letters and take him or her directly to treatment. There’s no need to continue reading once the intervention has been successful. More will just rub salt into an open wound.

Promises to go later:

Do not read your bottom lines. Instead, negotiate for the soonest possible date. Ask your loved one to give his word that he will keep his promise and arrange the details of the trip right then and there. But you should also be prepared for “Option B”—what will you do if your loved one refuses treatment? What if they say no?

Refuses to go:

Introduce the bottom lines. The chairperson might say something like this:

We understand you have the right to make this decision for yourself. Each of us in this room loves you very much, but we cannot continue to do anything that supports your addiction. Today, we have also made decisions regarding your addiction. We’d like to share these decisions with you.

Still refuses after bottom lines:

Explore her reasons. If your loved one has a false perception of treatment, be prepared to show brochures for or watch a video about the treatment facility.

You might also want to think about some of these questions that frequently reveal more reasons your loved one is not interested in treatment at the moment:

  •     Has your loved one been using or drinking immediately before the intervention?
  •     Is there a love interest on the side?
  •     Do they believe you will not follow through with your bottom lines?
  •     Does your loved one have a grudge against someone on the team?

Attempt to discern and dispel underlying excuses or reasons that might still be causing your loved one to refuse help and treatment.

Holds on to excuses:

Close the intervention with quiet respect but conviction. Always leave the door open for further discussion. The chairperson may want to say something like

“We may not agree with your decision, but we respect the fact that this is ultimately your decision. We came today out of our love and concern for you. We’re here because we want what’s best for you. If you change your mind, please come to us.”

Was your intervention a failure?

If your loved one flatly refuses treatment, is this a failed intervention?

Perhaps, in the terms that you have not met your goal of getting them to treatment, but not necessarily if you consider the many benefits of an intervention:

  • You’ve made an impact. The letters you wrote were not futile. The words you spoke during an intervention will    resonate in your loved one’s minds and return in quiet moments of doubt. You may not have stopped them    completely, but you’ve made them think. And that’s a first step.
  • Their addiction has lost support. If you follow through with your bottom lines, you have just sucked much of the life from your loved one’s addiction.
  • You’ve removed yourself from the destructive effects of their addiction. This doesn’t mean you won’t worry, but it does mean that you and the family are safe. It’s hard on everyone, but everyone benefits from the stability and calm.
  • Family and friends are changed and unified together. An intervention brings together those who care for their    loved one like nothing else can. The shame, guilt, and fear are washed away under the understanding of     what addiction is and how it’s not their fault.
  • No treatment does not mean no recovery. Just because the intervention did not get them to treatment does not mean they will not recover. Be patient. Follow through with your bottom lines. Stop helping the addiction, but don’t stop helping your loved one.

Hiring a professional interventionist

Sometimes, it is necessary to hire a professional interventionist who can modulate the process and direct the team to achieve maximum impact. Most of all, a professional interventionist helps the most when your loved one says “no.”

Near the end of the intervention, emotions are running high, and a professional interventionist can keep the intervention focused, prevent the conversation from going in circles, and know when it is time to pull out the bottom line.  They will also know which individual has the most impact and which individual might not be a good person to talk based upon what’s taking place.

An intervention does not necessarily require a professional, but the experience and knowledge of an interventionist will be an immense help during the intervention process.

If you would like to learn more about how you can help your loved one, visit our intervention overview article or download our free intervention guide today.


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