This is the last module of DBT!

Interpersonal effectiveness is about relationships– asking for what you want, setting boundaries, figuring out when to end relationships, fixing relationships, making new relationships, accepting relationships as they are, changing relationships. While “relationship” is usually shorthand for “primary relationship” or “romantic relationship”, I intend “relationship” to refer to all manner of relationships– from friends to coworkers to family to romantic partners to your next-door neighbor to the guy who serves you coffee.

Interpersonal effectiveness is weird, because a lot of people have interpersonal effectiveness skills in some areas but not others. For instance, they might be very effective at work, but be completely hopeless in romantic relationships. They might be able to ask for things that they need really well, but they might feel like they won’t have any friends if they say “no”. They might do okay on setting boundaries and communicating about their needs, but when the relationship goes ass-up they might not know how to fix it, or even know that it’s possible. They might do okay when they’re in a relationship, but avoid making new ones. Or they might be able to do all of that, but not know how to identify relationships that are harmful or create problems.

So what interferes with people being able to be interpersonally effective all the time?

Most obviously: they might not know how. In fact, everyone has at least one situation they don’t have the skills for: interacting with children or elderly people, training someone, talking to their doctor. Many times, we don’t notice that we don’t have the skills: we just feel frustrated or angry or blame other people for being obnoxious. It’s hard to know what you don’t know.

Another reason people aren’t very effective is that they don’t know what they want. Many people get in situations where they have a FEEL, and they don’t know why they have a FEEL or what could be done to stop having it or what the feel wants other people to do, but they VERY DEFINITELY HAVE A FEEL, DAMMIT. Sometimes, people wind up in a fight with each other and they don’t know why or how it started, which for obvious reasons makes it difficult to identify your objective in the argument. It can be hard to balance competing needs against each other: for instance, a lot of people wind up fighting with their roommates about the dishes when in reality they care more about not fighting with their roommates than they do about the dishes, or give in on their most cherished values to keep the peace, or refuse to tell a lie even when it’s necessary to get something very important. And a lot of people don’t know how to balance their own needs with other people’s needs– particularly young adults, who are often having to figure out their own boundaries about these things for the first time in their lives, and aren’t very good at it yet.

A third reason is that their emotions get in the way. When your pulse is pounding and your muscles are tense, it’s really hard to think straight and consider the bigger picture. When you’re angry, you can wind up saying something that hurts someone you really care about. When you’re ashamed of your desires, you can avoid asking for them and then never get your needs fulfilled. A fourth reason, which is pretty closely related to the third one, is forgetting your long-term goals and only thinking about your short-term goals: for instance, if the conversation is really unpleasant, you can wind up saying what’s necessary to get it to be over– even if that means you’ll be in hot water a few weeks down the line.

The fifth reason– which is a really big one– is that other people are getting in their way. DBT calls this an “environmental block”. No matter how interpersonally effective you are, if a cop sees you driving drunk, you’re probably going to end up arrested. There are lots of situations where other people are more powerful than you, aren’t going to do what you want unless you sacrifice your self-respect, or won’t like you if you get what you want. A lot of people tend to think there’s a magic secret that they can unlock that means they’ll get everything they want: if they just say the right series of words, they’ll get the job, the beautiful girl will go out with them, and their parents will accept their bisexuality. But, in actuality, there can be a recession in your area, the beautiful girl can be just not that into you, and your parents can continue to be homophobic dicks forever. As inconvenient as it is, other people want things and have autonomy, and that means that even the best interpersonal skills won’t be 100% effective– even though you can improve your odds.

Finally, you can believe myths about human interaction that make it harder for you to get what you want. These myths are like putting a soft focus filter on a camera: everything ends up blurry. Sometimes, we can get so used to seeing the blurriness that we don’t even notice how our vision is distorted! These are some myths people very commonly believe:

  • I don’t deserve to get what I want or need.
  • People should know my needs and boundaries without me having to tell them.
  • Everyone should like me.
  • I shouldn’t be kind or courteous to people who aren’t kind or courteous to me.
  • If someone gets upset with me, I can’t stand it.
  • If I just think differently, then I won’t have to bother other people; all my problems are in my head.
  • It’s wrong to ask things of people or set boundaries.
  • If I can’t fix things myself, I’m weak.
  • I should only ask people if I know they’ll say “yes.”
  • The most important thing is getting what I want when I want it.
  • If I have a good goal, then anything I do is justified to get it.
  • Everybody lies.
  • Only wimps have ethics.
  • Other people don’t deserve me treating them well.
  • Other people should be willing to do more for me.
  • Revenge feels so good that it’s worth the consequences.

When you notice yourself believing a myth about human interaction, don’t beat yourself up about it! Approach it with an attitude of curiosity: how does this color how I approach people? Remember that there is a grain of truth in all myths: that’s why you believe them! No one believes things that don’t have any evidence in favor. Ask yourself what’s valid about the myth, then ask yourself what’s valid about the opposite of it, and see if you can adopt a more balanced, nuanced position.

The first post in interpersonal effectiveness will be about asking for what you want and setting boundaries; the second will be about getting, maintaining, and ending friendships; and the third will be about walking the middle path.