Can't We All Just Get Along? An Introduction to Interpersonal Effectiveness
Relationships can be empowering or destructive.
NOTE: I am not a doctor. When it comes to your mental health, nothing can replace the care of professionals. Please take this Hub for what it is: insights from a fellow traveler, not advice from an expert. My goal is to share some of the experiences I have had in my own struggles with mood disorders. My hope is that it can provide some help and comfort to those who have had similar struggles, but it should supplement professional care, not supersede it.
Whether by design or evolution, human beings are social creatures. From the moment we emerge into the world, relationships play a crucial role in our emotional development. Effective relationships contribute to emotional health and teach habits that keep relationships healthy in the future. Ineffective relationships, on the other hand, can lead to emotional problems and a perpetuation of destructive or counterproductive interactions with others.
If you find yourself entangled in unhealthy relationships, there is good news: interpersonal effectiveness is a skill, and like any skill it can be learned. Whether ineffective relationships in the past left you with a dearth of skills or depression and anxiety have eroded those skills, you can learn how to form, keep, and maintain effective and fulfilling relationships.
Interpersonal effectiveness is so important to emotional health that Dr. Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), devoted an entire module to it. When I went through DBT the Interpersonal Effectiveness module helped me manage relationships that were strained by major depression. Now that I am getting married, I find that those same skills are equally useful in maintaining a healthy and effective relationship with my wife-to-be. Whether you suffer from a mood disorder or not, mastering these abilities will enrich your relationships and, by extension, your life.
Given that Interpersonal Effectiveness is an entire module, there is a lot of information. I have therefore decided to give a brief overview in this Hub, and I will get more in depth on different aspects in future Hubs.
An excellent lesson in validation...with robot voices.
Validation, validation, validation.
Before I begin, I think it is important to stress just how important validation is for interpersonal effectiveness. Trying to maintain a relationship without a validating environment is like trying to ice skate uphill: it is frustrating and ultimately futile.
First, you must validate your own thoughts and feelings. You have a right to feel the way you do. Invalidation of your feelings will lead to guilt and defensiveness, and you will already be at a disadvantage as far as relationships are concerned.
Second, you must learn to validate the feelings of others. While you have a right to feel the way you do, so does everyone else, which means you don't have a right to assume that everyone should feel the same way you do. This is especially true of your counterpart in a relationship.
I could write a whole Hub on validation, and I probably will, but for now, let's define validation as acceptance, understanding, communication that our feelings make sense, empathy, and benefit of the doubt that we are doing the best we can in the present moment. If two people in a relationship consistently give this to one another and themselves, there are no problems that they cannot overcome.
Trust me: without validation, the rest of these skills won't work.
The Three Goals of Interpersonal Effectiveness
Getting what you want
Keeping the relationship
Act consistent with morals and values
Balancing now and long term
Feel capable and effective
DBT provides three things to consider in any given situation within a relationship: objectives effectiveness, relationship effectiveness, and self-respect effectiveness.
Objectives Effectiveness - What do you want out of the situation?
- Obtaining your legitimate rights
- Getting another to do something
- Refusing an unwanted or unreasonable request
- Resolving an interpersonal conflict
- Getting your opinion or point of view taken seriously
Think about what specific results or changes you are looking for. Then you can consider what the most effective course of action will be to get results.
Relationship Effectiveness - How can you maintain a good relationship when the situation is resolved?
- Behaving in such a way that the other person keeps liking and respecting you
- Balancing immediate goals with the good of the long term relationship
Which possible actions for obtaining your goal will also be effective in maintaining the good health of the relationship?
Self-Respect Effectiveness - How can you keep or improve your self-respect in resolving the situation?
- Respecting your own values and beliefs; acting in a way that makes you feel moral
- Acting in a way that makes you feel capable and effective
Which actions can you take that will also leave you happy with yourself?
As you can see, relationships are a balancing act. We all want something from other people, and there is no shame in that. You might want your roommate to do the dishes, your spouse to support a decision you have made, or a boss to give you a raise. The key is to pursue what you want in such a way as to ensure that the relationship will continue or improve while also maintaining your self-respect. This is an effective relationship.
Factors Reducing Interpersonal Effectiveness
There are various reasons why people are less effective in relationships than they desire to be; it is important to remember that no one is ineffective on purpose. By understanding some of the reasons people struggle, you can find more patience and thus become more effective yourself.
Lack of Skill - Relating effectively with others is a skill, and some people simply don't have it. Like all skills, it must be observed and taught, so someone who has not had the behavior modeled will be deficient in the necessary ability. If you are having difficulty, do not judge yourself, and the same goes for others. In either case, use it as an opportunity to learn and practice.
Worry Thoughts - Remember when you wanted to ask out that boy or girl, but all you could do it think about them laughing or saying no? These kinds of thoughts get in the way of interpersonal skills all the time. It is important to remember that these are just thoughts, and they have no bearing on the outcome unless you allow them to. Sure, they might say no, but they might also say yes. If you don't ask, it's a guarantee that you won't get what you want.
Emotions - Emotions like anger can seriously compromise the ability to be effective in a relationship. If you find that you are angry, don't judge yourself - you have a right to feel the way you do (validation, remember?). However, take the time to be mindful of how you feel. If you are aware of your emotions, you don't have to be governed by them.
Indecision - Indecision can only be cleared up with mindfulness. If your mind is clouded by worrying thoughts and powerful emotions, clear decisions can be hard to reach. Try taking a more scientific approach: identify what you want, and make your decision based on how you can most effectively get it. This goes for asking for what you want as well as deciding whether or not to accept someone else's request.
Environment - There are some things you simply cannot control, and that is the reason why even the most skilled people sometimes do not get what they want or damage relationships. It is important to be aware of these factors so that at those times when you don't obtain your objective it does not lead to self-blame, frustration, and anger. With practice, you can be confident that you did the best you could, regardless of the outcome.
As in most things, generally a mix of factors are in play in any given situation. You can never eliminate them all, but you can minimize them and give yourself the best chance of effective interpersonal interaction.
DEAR MAN GIVE FAST
DEAR MAN GIVE FAST is the acronym used in DBT to describe the skills for objectives effectiveness, relationship effectiveness, and self-respect effectiveness.
For getting what you want:
Describe - Describe the current situation. Tell the person exactly what you are asking for or reacting to. Stick to the facts.
Express - Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Assume they are not self-evident. Give a brief rationale and use phrases like "I want" or "I don't want" instead of "I need," "you should," or "I can't."
Assert - Assert yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Once again, do not assume that the other person is a mind-reader.
Reinforce - Explain the consequences, positive or negative, for getting or not getting what you want. This should not be an ultimatum! It is not effective for the relationship to force someone to acquiesce. You are simply explaining how you feel and how you are likely to feel.
Mindful - Keep your focus on your objectives. Don't be distracted by emotion or worrying thoughts. Ignore attacks or attempts to change the subject.
Appear Confident - Appear effective and competent. Use a confident tone of voice and make eye contact. Do not retreat, stammer, mumble, or stare at the floor.
Negotiate - Be willing to give to get. Offer and ask for alternative solutions to the problem. You could reduce your request. You could maintain no, but offer to do something else. Focus on what will work.
For Maintaining the relationship:
Gentle - Be courteous and temperate in your approach. Do not use verbal or physical attacks. Avoid manipulative statements and moralizing judgments. Be prepared to tolerate a no, and exit gracefully.
Interested - Listen and be interested in the other person and their point of view. Listen to their opinions and reasons for saying no. Don't interrupt. Be patient.
Validate - Validate and acknowledge the other person's feelings, wants, difficulties, and opinions. Be non-judgmental. Express the validation out loud.
Easy Manner - Use a little humor and smile. Be light-hearted and use a soft sell.
For keeping your respect for yourself:
Fair - Be fair to both yourself and the other person.
Apologies - Do not be overly apologetic. Do not apologize for being alive or for making the request. Do not apologize for having opinions.
Stick to values - Stick to your own values. Don't sell out your values or integrity. Be clear on what you think is the moral or valued way of thinking and acting.
Truthful - DON'T LIE. Do not act helpless when you are not, or exaggerate. Do not make excuses.
Conclusion: Being Effective Versus "Winning"
I have noticed in my own life and by observing others that all too often interpersonal conflicts turn into competitions. One or both parties are more interested in winning the argument than in getting what they want, with the result that no one obtains their objective, or one person does at the expense of the other, and the relationship is damaged. People are willing to choose a temporary feeling of vindication or self-righteousness instead of the overall good.
When I worked in retail, I used to tell my employees that when it came to problem customers, it was better to be polite to them. It might feel better to be rude and tell them to take a hike, but if they did that the customer would complain to corporate, the employee would get in trouble, and the customer would get something for free. The less viscerally satisfying path was the more effective one.
The tools of interpersonal effectiveness can help you overcome the knee-jerk reaction and really engage in the dynamics of relating to other human beings in an effective way. In the future I hope to get more in depth on these tools, but in the meantime I hope this helps.