Do I Need to Become More Interpersonally Effective?

One of the four modules in DBT Skills Training is Interpersonal Effectiveness. For me, during my DBT Intensive Training in 2003/2004, the skills in Marsha Linehan’s model of Interpersonal Effectiveness blew me away. Her way of introducing and then weaving together the various aspects of how to most effectively interact with our objectives, others in our lives and ourselves, is revolutionary. I assert that we all have gaps in our skills in this area and we can all benefit from learning more about Interpersonal Effectiveness.

All of us like to get what we want. We all have admirable goals, dreams and desires. Most of us also want to get along with others; we desire meaningful and harmonious relationships with the people in our lives. If you are reading this it is likely that, in the context of many of the relationships in your life, you struggle with getting what you need and desire. You may set out to tell your boss that you want a raise or your partner that you need more help around the house but in the face of their refusal, or just plain apathy, you abandon your requests and just stop asking. You may also find it difficult to present your needs and desires to others without ending up in some kind of strife with them or you might just plain give up before you have even started.

Why is it most of us experience so much unhappiness and frustration in life? It is certainly true that bad things, completely out of our control, do happen to all of us. However, much of our suffering is the direct result of our lack of training in effective living practices and interpersonal skills. In other words, much of our unhappiness is self-created due to conflicts in our relationships both with others and with ourselves coupled with not having a clue what to do about it. Western culture does not convey to us much fluency in the language of interpersonal effectiveness.

We march through life giving very little thought to how our emotional reactions to others color the choices we make in every relational interaction we have. We simply act and react, justifying our behaviors on our perceptions of the other person’s misbehaviors. For instance, my teenage son might yell at me, “It isn’t fair, it’s all your fault and you just don’t understand,” run upstairs and slam his door. I might launch myself after him, bang on the door and scream back that he is ungrateful and belligerent and if he doesn’t open his door this minute he will be grounded for months.

Both of us probably feel justified in our choices of behavior and language. The case he is building in his mind might be along the lines of feeling deprived, unjustly blamed or simply right while I am wrong, wrong, wrong. My case for losing my own self-control is that he is a disrespectful, willful, ungrateful brat and that he needs to be taught a lesson. We both might be right. We both clearly think so and we each believe that our “rightness” justifies our behavior. We can be right all day long and still have a strained relationship with one another; one that is marked by near-constant power struggles, fights and misery.

This is what happens in human relationships when we, usually unconsciously, make being right the goal, the desired end-point of our interactions with others. Do I really want to be right at the expense of my relationship with my son? Does he really want to lose all of his autonomy for self-righteousness sake? Do any of us really choose on-going disharmony, acrimony and anger in our relationships because this is what we really want? The answer is obviously no. We just don’t know any other way to conduct our relationships. No one ever asked us what our goals are in each human interaction we have. And no one ever taught us how to be thoughtful in every action we take; thoughtful, not in the “be nice” sense, but in the true sense of the word, attentive to our feelings, beliefs, behaviors and choices of words.

We all have goals. However, we tend to think of them only in the long term, like wanting a new job or to grow up to be a fireman. We are not taught to think about what it is we want out of each interaction we have, how we want others to feel and think about us and how we want to feel and think about ourselves when all is said and done, and what it is we have to do to get those things. When we enter into an interaction with another human being we are not in the habit of asking ourselves, “What is my desired goal for this interaction?”

This may sound incredibly awkward to you but I assure you that when we do, however briefly, entertain this question we are much more likely to get whatever it is we are desiring out of the interaction.

Knowing what we want (to get someone to help us with a task, to simply let someone know we care, to get our point of view taken seriously, etc.) is key to deciding how we will approach the situation. For instance, if my goal really is to be right I will approach a situation differently than if my goal is to increase the harmony in my relationship with the person with whom I am having the interaction.

The good news is that it is not too late to learn the skills necessary to become effective in our relationships and in our lives. Just like learning a new language or how to use a computer, humans can and do learn new skills and behaviors throughout life. All it takes is a good lesson book or manual, teacher or group, and lots of practice. The importance of practice cannot be overstated. Humans learn through repetition and practice. Think of the baby who repeatedly and gleefully drops her cup from her highchair. She is experimenting with a behavior and learning the results of that behavior. Like the good baby scientist she is, she is duplicating the experiment until she can verify its results; mommy and daddy pick up the cup and return it to her every time.