The manner in which we communicate with others has a major impact on the quality of our relationships. Yet we were rarely given a class in effective communication during our formal education, leaving us to wing it and learn by trial and error.
Approaching someone to make a request can be scary. There’s no guarantee that we’ll get what we desire, and often we’re a bit concerned about how our relationship will be impacted by the conversation. Getting your point across in a kind and clear manner, when a multitude of emotions are churning inside of you, is no easy task.
In addition, we’d like to maintain our self-respect, which is easier said than done if we’re in a bit of a tizzy, haven’t thought the conversation through, and are intimidated by the other person.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches people how to enter into conversations in a deliberate and thoughtful manner, rather than expressing oneself impulsively due to unbridled feelings and stress. The developer of DBT, Marsha Linehan, names three important components of interpersonal effectiveness:
To simplify matters, it can help to determine our priorities before we enter into an interaction with another person.
For instance, if you find yourself harassed by telemarketers during your dinner hour, achieving your objective (getting off these people’s call list) is probably more important to you than preserving the relationship.
On the other hand, if your boss has been getting a little too familiar with you, flirting and making inappropriate comments, your self-respect might come first, followed by your obtaining your goal (back off), and finally your relationship with your boss.
And what if your husband has been leaving dirty socks on the bedroom floor? Your relationship may take higher billing than your objective (convincing your husband to clean up after himself).
DBT uses acronyms to help people remember the key principles behind effective communication.
When achieving your objective is most important, remember DEAR MAN:
Describe the situation. Objectively. Just the facts. No commentary. For instance, “The past three times we’ve made plans to meet for lunch, you’ve shown up at least 30 minutes late.”
Express your feelings and thoughts. Try to walk the middle road here – no minimizing or exaggerating. For example, “When you consistently show up late for our lunches, I feel frustrated and hurt, as if our get-togethers don’t mean that much to you.”
Assert. Ask for what you want. It may seem obvious to you, but don’t assume that the other person can read your mind. Be straight-forward. You could say, “I’d appreciate it if you could arrive on time for our next lunch date.”
Reinforce. State the good things that will happen if your friend responds to your request, such as “If we both arrive on time, we’ll have a lot more time to catch up, and there’s so much I’d like to hear about your latest trip (job, etc.)”. Also mention the negative consequences if the other person doesn’t comply with your request: “If you’re late for our next lunch, we won’t be able to spend much time with each other. Maybe we’ll need to figure out another way to get together.”
(stay) Mindful. Stick to your guns and refuse to be sidetracked by attempts to divert your attention or threats. Just restate your request, calmly and firmly.
Appear confident. A confident demeanor conveys to both the other person and yourself that your request deserves respect. In other words, no whispering, hemming and hawing, looking anywhere but at the other person, or retracting your request. Use confident body language. Present yourself in an even-keeled, self-assured manner.
Negotiate. We can’t always get exactly what we want. Maybe the other person is unwilling or unable to meet you for lunch on time. Maybe the traffic from their home to your meeting place is unpredictable, and they aren’t able to leave earlier to meet you. You can present other options, such as getting together on the weekend or at a different time of day or location. Or ask your friend for suggestions. “What would you prefer?”
When preserving the relationship is most important, remember GIVE:
(be) Gentle. Be polite. No attacks, threats, or judgments. Make it your intention to go for the Win-Win solution.
(act) Interested. Listen to the other person’s reasoning for saying no or asking for something. Don’t interrupt. If the other person asks to have the discussion some other time, be flexible and sensitive to his or her needs and plan to talk at an agreed-upon later time.
Validate. Acknowledge the other person’s view of the situation; “I know that this is very hard for you, but…” or “I realize that this may be inconvenient for you…” or “I hear that this is new for you…”
(use an) Easy Manner. Use a light-hearted, easy-going tone. Smile, use a little humor, to lessen the tension.
When retaining your self-respect is most important, remember FAST:
(be) Fair. To minimize resentment for both parties, be fair to both yourself and the other person.
(no) Apologies. Don’t apologize just for making a request, having an opinion, or disagreeing with the other person. Apologizing too much can erode your belief in your effectiveness over time. Do apologize when appropriate, such as for your responsibility in a situation.
Stick to values. Think and act in accordance with your own morals and values. Don’t relinquish your sense of integrity.
(be) Truthful. Don’t act helpless or domineering in order to manipulate others. Dishonesty diminishes your self-respect.
Using these tools can make it more likely that your interactions with other people will be positive. You’ll increase your chances of being able to convey your wishes in a concise and clear manner, with integrity, while also expressing interest in the other person’s feelings and maintaining the relationship.
Which of these tools have you found to be most effective? I welcome your feedback.
Linehan, M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: New York: Guilford Press.