Interpersonal Effectiveness

Every Thursday is DBT Day for Eadaoin and me.  She really doesn’t like it although I think she is learning a lot.  She will begrudgingly admit that.  I really like it, but I read psychology books for fun.

Yesterday, we began the unit on Interpersonal Effectiveness, and I was so excited.  This is the unit I’ve been waiting for.  I really want to increase my own interpersonal effectiveness, and I can’t wait to learn more skills.  I also want Eadaoin to walk away with one thing: We are successful in relationships when we have the skills to be.

Isn’t that an interesting idea? We weren’t born knowing how to communicate with respect.  We didn’t come with an imaged hard drive, pre-loaded knowing how to act, how to behave, how to adjust ourselves to every situation and circumstantial climate.  We have to learn how to do that.  We don’t instinctively know that feelings aren’t facts.  Thousands of years ago, if we felt fearful, then that was probably a valid instinct.  Fear meant ‘run’ or ‘fight’ or ‘freeze’.  Other mammals do it.  I came home the other night and saw four rabbits on my lawn.  They all just froze like little Peter Rabbit statues: “If I sit here, rooted to the ground, silent, and still, then the huge human coming toward me won’t see me.”

Does this instinct serve us now? Sometimes.  Always? No.  It doesn’t help us during a conflict at work or in a highly-valued relationship.  Feelings usually come with a language all their own like “What if…” and “I’ll never be able to…” and “I’m so _____” and “They always _____”, and these automatic thoughts often prevent us from getting what we want.  This is why learning Interpersonal Effectiveness is so important, and it starts with one question.

What is your goal?

The context for this question is relationships.  So, when we discuss “the goal” we are speaking in terms of our effectiveness in relationships be that at work, at school, in friendships, in parent/child relationships, in romantic relationships, etc.  There are three priorities that we keep in mind at all times when we discuss a goal in terms of interpersonal effectiveness:

  • The relationship
  • Our objective
  • Our self-respect

Here is an example:

Relationship: Keeping and maintaining healthy relationships


  1. How do I want the other person to feel about me?
  2. How do I get the other person to hear what I am saying?

Example: If I care about the person or if the person has authority over me (i.e. a boss), act in a way that keeps the person respecting and liking me.

Objective: Getting my goals met in any type of situation (getting what I want)


  1. What do I want?
  2. What do I need?
  3. How do I get it?

Example: To say ‘no’, to ask for something, to resolve a problem, to be listened to

Self-Respect: Keeping or improving how I feel about myself


  1. How do I want to feel about myself after the interaction?

Example: What are my values and personal beliefs? Act in a way that makes me feel good about myself.


Think about these three goals as priorities.  When they are unclear, you may become indecisive.  For each interaction, it becomes a matter of what is most important, what is secondary, and what is tertiary.  For example, you may have had an interaction with a friend that didn’t go well.  S/he may have behaved in a way that hurt your feelings leaving you feeling conflicted.  Perhaps you know what motivated the behavior.  It really had nothing to do with you.  At the same time, you want to respect yourself, and you don’t feel that letting the conflict fall to the side unaddressed will nurture your own self-respect.  The relationship deserves the attention, and, truthfully, your friend ought to know that their actions, while not really about you, affected you negatively.  This act then becomes an act of self-care as well.

So, your list might look something like this:

What are my goals?

OBJECTIVE: to communicate kindly so that the rift in the relationship is healed #2

RELATIONSHIP: to preserve and nurture the relationship #1

SELF-RESPECT: speaking with kindness and honesty about how I feel will help me feel empowered in the relationship but will not come at my friend’s expense. #3

On paper this looks so easy, but it’s not.  This is all skills-based.

What stops us from achieving our goals?

1. Lack of skill

You actually do not know what to say or how to act. This is important to note.

Many times we think that a person is unwilling or lazy when, in fact, they lack the skills to know how to engage or problem-solve.  They may not even know what they want or need.  So, it is always very important to ask: Does this person have the skills to “do relationship”? Do they need help, mentoring, modeling, or coaching?

2. Worry thoughts

You have the skill, but your worry thoughts interfere with doing or saying what you want.  Some examples of worry thoughts are:

  • Worries about bad consequences: “They won’t like me.” or “He’ll think I’m stupid.”
  • Worries about whether you deserve to get what you want: “I’m such a bad person, I don’t deserve this.”
  • Worries about being ineffective and calling yourself names (self-judgments): “I won’t do it right.” or “I’m so stupid!”

3. Emotions

You have the skill, but your emotions (anger, frustration, fear, guilt, sadness) make you unable to do or say what you want.  Emotions, instead of skill, control what you say and do.

4. Can’t decide

You have the skill, but you can’t decide what to do or what you want.  You can’t figure out how to balance:

  • Asking for too much versus not asking for anything.
  • Saying no to everything versus giving in to everything.

5. Environment

You have the skill, but the environment gets in the way (this can be particularly relevant to work environments):

  • Other people are too powerful.
  • Other people may have some reason for not liking you if you get what you want.
  • Other people won’t give you what you want or need unless you sacrifice your self-respect.

I want to elaborate on the idea of worry thoughts because this is very common.  Many of us are not effective in our relationships, both personal and professional, because of what we believe.  We have a thought; we then believe that thought, and then that belief becomes an action.  Here are some common worry thoughts and corresponding “cheerleading” statements.  Do you relate to any of these statements?

  1. Why bother asking if it won’t make a difference anyway?
  2. If I ask for something, s/he’ll think I’m stupid.
  3. I’m such a bad person that I don’t deserve it.
  4. If I say no, they’ll never talk to me again.
  5. Saying no to a request is always a selfish thing to do.


  1. Just because I didn’t get what I wanted last time doesn’t mean that if I ask skillfully this time that I won’t get what I want. OR It never hurts to ask.
  2. It takes a strong person to admit that they need help from someone else and then ask for it.
  3. I can understand and validate another person and still ask for what I want.
  4. I can stand it if I don’t get what I want or need.  Nobody has ever died from being uncomfortable.
  5. If I say no to people and they get angry it doesn’t mean I should have said yes.
  6. I can still feel good about myself even though someone else is annoyed with me.
  7. I can make bad choices and still be a good person and receive good things.

This is an introduction to interpersonal effectiveness DBT-style.  My favorite part of this approach is the focus on self-respect.  Dignity is not a small thing.  I have seen so many relationships that seem to function at the expense of others.  We see this in office settings.  There isn’t true collaboration.  There is a power differential that thrives on stealing the self-respect of employees and adding it to the narcissistic manager.  This dynamic exists in friendships and marriages as well.  The notion that self-respect ought to be a priority and goal in all our interactions is encouraging and exciting.  It raises the bar.  The encouragement that we ought to step back and ask, “How do I want to feel about myself after this interaction is over?” is so refreshing because it reminds us that we are an equal partner in all our relationships, and we get to choose how we show up.  We choose how we caregive.  We choose how we work.  We choose how we treat others, and, in that choosing, how we feel about ourselves changes.  For better or for worse.  It does, however, place the responsibility for our actions fully on our shoulders.  This is a good thing.  It prevents victim thinking and keeps us empowered and aware.  Should we suddenly realize that the unspoken rules of a relationship, either professional or personal, prevent us from getting what we want–meeting our goals in terms of self-respect, relationship, and/or objective–then we have good information that we can use to take action.  Even if we can’t leave said relationship immediately, we know something that we didn’t before.  This framework provides a new way for experiencing ourselves, others, and the myriad relationships that we will have in our lives.

Adapted from Miller, Rathus, and Landsman (1999)


Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha M. Linehan





3 thoughts on “Interpersonal Effectiveness

  1. This is excellent! So so important for us to recognize the dynamics working both inside of us, and the other person. I see areas where I can improve, but so areas where I’ve done well to continue to respect the other person AND myself when an interaction goes poorly. Thanks for posting!!

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