DBT Skills: Interpersonal Effectiveness

I have to admit that social interaction and communication are not my strongest points. This is a relatively new development for me, or so I thought. I used to think I was great at using my voice, at standing up for myself, at being in social situations. Today there are a number of barriers that prevent me from being effective in interpersonal communication. One of them is mental and emotional health issues. It’s really hard for me to connect with others when I don’t feel so great myself. Another is acute hearing loss, in both ears, coupled with tinnitus. And finally – and probably the most overwhelming for me, especially when it comes to asking for what I need and speaking up for myself, or saying no when being asked for something – I was raised in an environment that didn’t really encourage me to use my voice under any circumstances. In fact, it was preferred if I was invisible, or at least that’s how I translated it.

So. What to do? I clearly can’t live the rest of my life unable to ask for what I need, or to say no to things I don’t want to do and people I don’t wish to engage with. I cringe at the mere thought of asking people to repeat themselves or to speak up when I can’t hear them, but it’s crucial for me to be able to interact with others. The interpersonal effectiveness module of DBT addresses this: how to ask for what you need or want, and say no to what you don’t.

Seems easy enough, right? I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this article, that may not be the case. I’m on my last module of DBT now and one of the things that I enjoy about it is that it breaks everything down to the simplest form and presents it in an accessible way. Let’s take a look at Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The first thing is identifying the prompting event. What happened that makes you want to take action? For example, let’s say you live with someone who’s not pulling their weight around the house. That would be the prompting event. The next step is to identify the objectives of the interaction. So you’ve decided you want to approach the person, but what is it that you actually want to accomplish? Could be that you want to nail down a schedule. Could be that you want to voice your concerns over being the only one contributing. Could be a number of things, and it doesn’t have to be just one. You can have several. They will all support your cause. Then, identify any relationship issues. How do you want the other person to feel about you when the interaction is over? You may not care, or it may be important to you to preserve the relationship. Identifying self-respect issues comes next. How do you want to feel about yourself when the interaction has concluded? The final step of this first part is to prioritize these three points. Objectives, relationship issue, self-respect issue – which is the most important of these, and in what order do the others follow? This will determine how to proceed.

If objectives are your main goal – in other words, if you are driven by the need to achieve what you set out for above maintaining the relationship or your own self-respect – then there are ways to accomplish this when you are interacting with the other person. Describe the situation, and how it makes you feel, as well as any opinions you have about the situation. Assert them, and reinforce them. Also, be mindful. The other person may try to sway you from your goal by attacking you verbally or by trying to redirect – ‘Yeah but you do (such and such)’, for example – but you can stay on track using two methods: the broken record approach, and ignoring attacks. Either way, you repeat yourself as often as possible to get across to the other person that you are serious about what it is that you need. Appear confident in the conversation; speak in a clear, steady voice and make eye contact. Maintain good posture. This last one may be the most difficult for some; I know it is for me. Lastly, don’t be afraid to negotiate. If they can’t meet your terms, come up with something together that is fair and acceptable for the two of you.

If keeping the relationship is the most important factor for you, be gentle. Make sure you are not using threats, attacks or judgments. A threat may look like ‘If you don’t do this I’ll…’. An attack might look like ‘You never want to do anything for me, you’re such a …’. Appear interested in what they are saying; stay engaged in the conversation. Validate them. Be present. And depending on the nature of the relationship, you may want to use an easy manner. This may involve using humor or a light touch instead of going into the interaction in a grave, serious manner.

Finally, if keeping self-respect is your first priority, you may want to consider the following points. Are you being fair, to yourself and the other person? Are you not asking more than either of you are prepared to or able to give? Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault. This might look like ‘I’m sorry, but no’. Just saying ‘No’ is perfectly within your right as a human being; you don’t have to be sorry for it. Did you stick to your values? And finally, were you truthful? This can involve not using excuses when asking for something, also known as laying track. Just ask for what you need. Or don’t be afraid to say no if someone asking for what you cannot or will not give.

So, now that I’ve outlined all of this, it’s entirely possible that you may feel more intimated than ever about approaching your interpersonal situation with confidence. I don’t blame you. I did too, and still do. Thankfully there are tools to help us identify our weak spots. What skills are you lacking? For example, it could be that you don’t know what to say or how to act in the situation, which approach would be the most appropriate. Maybe you are plagued by worry thoughts, such as ‘They won’t like me anymore’ or ‘I’m so stupid’ or ‘I don’t deserve what I’m asking for because I’m a bad person’. Emotions like fear, anger, frustration, guilt and/or shame may get in the way by controlling your ability to act skillfully. Indecision may grip you; you may feel torn between the extremes of asking for too much versus asking for nothing at all, or saying no to everything versus taking on too much. Finally, consider your environment, which may affect even a very skilled person. It could be that the other person is too powerful, or they won’t give you what you need without you having to sacrifice yourself in some way. By identifying the influences that affect you, you will have a better understanding of what you are facing and why it is having such a strong impact on you. It may, in turn, help you to feel more powerful in the situation and imbue you with a heightened sense of confidence when entering the situation.

To further assist you, there are a series of questions you can ask yourself, with the idea that if you can answer with more yes’s than no’s, it’s a good idea to ask.

  • Can the person give me what I want?
  • Is it a good time for me to ask?
  • Is what the person does any of my business?
  • Do I have the right to what I am asking for?
  • Is my request appropriate to the relationship I have with this person?
  • Do I typically ask less than I give?
  • Is asking important to the long-term goal?
  • Am I acting competently?

If you are being asked for something, and you can answer the following questions with more no’s than yes’s, then it’s probably a good idea to say no.

  • Do I have what this person wants?
  • Is it a bad time for me to say no?
  • Is the request clear?
  • Is this person in authority over me?
  • Does saying no violate this person’s rights?
  • Is the request appropriate?
  • Does this person give me a lot? Do I owe this person?
  • Does ‘no’ interfere with the long-term goal?
  • Does ‘wise mind’ say ‘yes’?

Good luck with your interactions! Hopefully you’ll be asking for what you need, not backing down, and able to say no to things that don’t serve you in no time at all. Of course, if you’re anything like me, it’ll be a bumpy road, so go gentle on yourself.


(The information given here is based on the DBT model designed by Marsha Linehan in her book ‘Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder’, copyright 1993, The Guilford Press.)

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