Often, when we need something from someone else, the way we are communicating is the strongest predictor of whether or not we will get it. It doesn’t matter if this is a simple request for a listening ear or a serious plea for someone to acknowledge your needs. In the realm of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, we call issues like this Interpersonal Effectiveness.
Interpersonal effectiveness is one of the four skill-sets of DBT, and an important aspect of this skill set is communicating clearly what you want or need from someone else in a way that makes it easier for them to comply. It may sound like some sort of secret method for manipulating your friends into giving you what you want, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This is about setting realistic boundaries around what you expect of others and what others expect of you. You can practice communicating these boundaries in healthy and positive ways. In DBT, this skill is synthesized into the acronym “D.E.A.R. M.A.N.” (Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, (Stay) Mindful, Appear confident, and Negotiate). The following will break this down further to make this an easy-to-remember and easy-to-practice skill:
Step one is relatively straightforward: simply describe the problematic situation to the other person in your own words. An important aspect of this, however, is to avoid being judgmental. You cannot assume that they are intentionally hurting or frustrating you, even if it seems that way. It could be that they are asking too much of you and you must establish some healthy boundaries and expectations with them. For example, in a situation where a friend is calling you too frequently and preventing you from doing work, you may say something like, “You call me and talk to me on the phone every day for hours, even though I’ve asked if we could talk on the phone less.” This clearly describes the problem in a way that is not accusatory.
Communicate your feelings about the situation. This is an appropriate place to use some “I” statements, versus “You” statements. For example, you could say, “When we talk for hours every day, I feel overwhelmed and like I cannot accomplish the things I need to get done in the day.”
Be assertive. State clearly what you want, even if this doesn’t come naturally to you. You cannot assume that others will figure out what you want or even that they should figure it out. People are not mind readers, and the only way to ensure your needs are heard and understood is to state them clearly. To continue the previous example, you may say to your friend “I would like it if we could limit our phone conversations to once a week.”
If you are asking for something, communicate what benefits there are for you or for the relationship. Why invest in this outcome? Again, people cannot read your mind, and you cannot assume that they have the same perspective you do in this situation. For example, “I would be able to keep up with my work and be a little less stressed if we were able to spend less time on the phone.” Additionally, there may be positive outcomes for the other person, such as, “If I was less stressed and overwhelmed, I feel like I would be much more helpful to talk to!”
Keep your goal in mind and don’t allow yourself to get distracted. Depending on how skilled the other person is in interpersonal interactions, they may try to distract or derail you by changing the subject or trying to start a fight. Don’t take the bait, just keep being assertive and calmly and confidently asking for what you need. “I understand, but I would really like for us to spend less time talking on the phone.”
You may not feel confident, but you can still act like you are! Body language is powerful. Make good eye contact instead of staring at the floor. Have good posture as opposed to slouching. Speak clearly and firmly. Avoid using qualifying words or statements like “maybe” or “kind of”, because these do not express what you really wish to communicate. You know what you need, and you know that you have no choice but to ask for it, so there is no need to qualify or lessen your request.
You may not get exactly what you want. This is not a sign of failure or defeat. Even when you are setting healthy boundaries, flexibility is healthy. Everyone needs to be heard, and negotiating shows you listen. In fact, if everyone creates the solution together, everyone gets to carry it out together. Ask for other’s input and ideas. Compromise! “How would you feel about us talking for an hour a day, two or three days a week?” or “Do you think we could meet in the middle somewhere? What do you think that would look like?”
Now What? Communicating In Your Unique Situation
If you would like to talk about how to apply these techniques to your particular situation, or learn more about DBT skills, I would love to meet with you! You can contact me at 940-222-8703 x705 or [email protected], or schedule an appointment online!