Pretty much everyone has some things that they want from other people.
In any interaction, there are three kinds of goals you can have. First, there’s your objective: the practical thing you want. For instance, you might want your partner to run to the bank, your boss to give you a raise, or the clerk to let you return the shoes that don’t fit. It is very important that you know what you actually want. A lot of times, we get sad or angry and just start yelling without stopping to think “why am I yelling? What do I want this person to actually do?” Knowing what you want opens up room for compromise.
Second, there’s the relationship: maintaining the health of the relationship and making sure the other person likes, respects, and approves of you. This is paying attention to the relationship and to how you want the other person to feel once the interaction is done.
Third, there’s your self-respect: standing your ground, following your own values, and acting in a way that makes you feel ethical, capable, and effective. You might think “obviously, that is priority number one in every interaction!”, but that’s actually not the case. A lot of people– especially those from traumatic backgrounds– have an overactive need for self-respect, which can make them touchy, easily offended, and highly sensitive to other people’s disrespect.
In any interaction, you want to attend to all three. A lot of the time, you can emerge from the interaction with all three intact: an improved relationship, increased self-respect, and your objective. However, you should know what your priorities are. You might decide to lie to your boss to keep the job that lets you feed your children: sacrificing your self-respect in favor of an objective. You might decide to give in about your partner’s tendency to leave her socks on the floor: sacrificing your objective in favor of the relationship. You might decide to refuse to go along with your friends doing something you believe is morally wrong: sacrificing your relationships in favor of your self-respect.
Which one you want to prioritize in any given interaction changes all the time. A lot of what’s called “assertiveness” is actually being sensitive to how your priorities in the interaction change.
The skills to obtain these three goals are called DEAR MAN GIVE FAST which are, respectively, what to say to get your objective, how to say it to get your objective, how to improve relationships, and how to maintain your own self-respect.
DEAR is just one way to ask for things. There are lots of other strategies that work, and if you don’t use DEAR and you’re getting what you want, then you don’t have to switch; however, DEAR does work pretty reliably and is not going to make a situation worse. You can feel free to change up the order, and it’s okay to leave some of the steps out– especially for minor requests. If your child left her wet towel on the bed, it can be enough to just say “the towel!” While using DEAR can be awkward at first, over time it becomes second nature.
Describe. Factually describe the current situation, leaving out your interpretations and emotion-laden words. Tell the person what you’re reacting to. This sets the framework and allows the other person to know the context of your request– so you don’t end up falling victim to the illusion of transparency. It orients them and makes sure you’re both on the same page. When you describe, do your best not to be emotional: imagine you’re a camera reporting what you see.
“Today, you were fifteen minutes late. It was the third time this month.”
Express. Briefly say your feelings and opinions about the situation. Don’t assume the other person knows how you feel. Avoid “shoulds”: try saying “I want” instead. And describe your own feelings instead of criticizing the other person: “I’m sad” instead of “you’re inconsiderate.” Most people like expressing their own feelings; if you’re not careful, DEAR can turn into EEEE. In fact, many people think of asking and expressing as being the same thing! So once you’ve expressed your feelings, move on.
“When you don’t show up on time, I feel like you don’t care about me or respect me.”
Assert. Clearly state what you want or that you’re refusing a request. Do not attempt the telepathy method of expressing needs and setting boundaries. It does not work. A simple phrase like “are you willing to X?” goes a long way.
“I want you to arrive on time in the future.”
Reinforce. A preview of the consequences of you getting what you want. It provides motivation and shows people what’s in it for them. Many people think rewarding others for doing what they want is manipulative: in reality, it’s actually just a good way of finding a solution to the problem that works out for everyone. One common mistake is to describe the effects on you rather than them. Don’t say “you doing the dishes will make my life so much easier” unless you have reason to believe that the person genuinely wants your life to be easier– and even then, it’s probably more effective to add “which will make me so much more willing to make those dinners you like so much”. Remember also to do what you said you were going to do– if you don’t actually make dinner, they’ll remember and be more reluctant to do what you want in the future.
In some cases, it may be necessary to mention negative consequences of people’s actions: for instance, “if you don’t finish your part of the group project, we will flunk”. Be careful that you don’t wind up threatening the person: if the consequence is something you’re doing, make sure it’s proportional and something you’re willing to do. Negative consequences are almost always harmful to the relationship, but sometimes for a sufficiently important objective that’s a good trade.
“If you show up on time, we’ll be able to spend a lot more time together.”
Mindful. Keep your focus on your goals. Don’t be distracted by strong emotions. Don’t get sidetracked and start talking about that time in 2012 where she invited you to a party and you ended up alone and awkward all night while she talked about physics with her friends. Don’t lose track of what your position is.
There are two techniques that are sometimes useful. Only use them for situations that are very important; this isn’t for making sure that your partner gets the milk. “Broken record” is expressing your opinion, asking, or saying no over and over again, in a different way. It’s crucial that you don’t escalate the intensity. Don’t go “Can you please move? You can’t sit there. Move! GET OFF YOUR ASS AND FUCKING MOVE!” Stay at the same intensity you started, but use different words: “Can you please move? I’m going to have to ask you to move. You are blocking the entrance if there is a fire. Can you please sit somewhere else?” Another useful skill is learning to not respond to insults, threats, or attempts to change the subject. Pretend that the person didn’t say them; mentally snip out those statements, and respond only to things which are germane to the conversation. (If the subject isn’t important, then if someone insults you you should probably just end the conversation.)
Appear confident. Note that this doesn’t say “be confident”. It is totally okay to fake it till you make it. Pretending to be confident makes people take you more seriously. Don’t stammer, whimper, stare at the floor, retreat, or use withdrawn body language. Stand up straight. Make good eye contact. (If you’re not good at eye contact, stare at someone’s nose or cheek; they can’t tell.) Verbally, don’t say “I’m not sure”, “whatever you want”, “I don’t know.” Pretend that you are acting the role of an effective, competent adult– even if you don’t feel like one. For most people who don’t have a relevant disability, deliberately thinking confident thoughts causes them to have more confident body language and tone of voice: say to yourself “I can do this”, “I’m in the right here”, “I deserve this.”
Negotiate. Try to come to a decision that’s satisfactory for everyone. Know what your absolute non-negotiables are, and be willing to give on others. Maybe you need to know whose house your teenager is visiting, but while you’d prefer a phone call it wouldn’t kill you if they texted. Be willing to offer multiple solutions to the problem. Ask why they’re refusing you or asking something of you, and see if you can get their needs met a different way. If you’re saying no, offer to solve the problem in some other way or do a different favor to them. Ask “what do you think?” or “what’s the problem from your end? Sometimes– particularly if the objective isn’t very important, or you’re prioritizing the relationship or self-respect– be willing to reduce your request or back down entirely. A lot of people feel really shitty about taking “no” for an answer, but in reality interpersonal effectiveness sometimes requires saying “okay, I guess I’m not getting this one today.”
One powerful technique is turning the tables: asking the other person to solve the problem. Scripts you can use for this include “what would you do if you were me?”, “pretend you were in my shoes”, and “what do you think we should do?” There is nothing people love more than having their opinions asked. And if they feel like they’re participating in solving the problem, they’re much more likely to try to come to a real solution, instead of just stonewalling you.
Gentle. You know everything I’m going to list out in this bullet point already. Don’t insult people. Don’t harass people. For the love of God, don’t hit people. Describe negative consequences calmly and without exaggerating. Don’t threaten suicide. Don’t make hidden threats. Don’t say “if you were a good person you would…” Pretend that the English language is completely missing the word “should”. Don’t blame people. Don’t say you don’t care about the other person. Don’t tell them their emotions are stupid. Don’t clench your fists, smirk, sneer, roll your eyes, or suck your teeth. Be willing to stay in the discussion, even if it’s painful; if it gets to be too much for you, exit gracefully, and don’t cut them off mid-sentence.
Everyone knows this shit. And yet a lot of people in the heat of the moment wind up doing it anyway. If you have serious issues– such as a tendency to hit people, threaten suicide to get your way, or verbally abuse people– your problems are too big for me to help with a blog post; stop immediately, and if you cannot stop seek help from a good therapist or a perpetrator program. If your issues are smaller, make a firm commitment to gentleness, look for your triggers and leave the conversation as soon as you become triggered, script out your conversations ahead of time so you have something to return to in the heat of the moment, and practice distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills when you need to.
Gentleness is to relationship maintenance what distress tolerance is to DBT as a whole. It’s not going to fix anything, but it’s going to stop you from digging yourself into a deeper hole.
Interested. Listen and pay attention to the other person. Take an interest in their point of view. Nod. Say “mhm, yeah, I get you.” Face the person. If it is comfortable for you, maintain eye contact. Don’t interrupt or talk over the person. Don’t think about what you’re going to say while they’re talking. Don’t get distracted: don’t play with your phone or check Twitter, and if you have to, return back to them and say “Sorry for the interruption. You were saying about the dentist…?” Throw yourself into interacting with the other person. Do one thing at a time.
Now, of course, a lot of people we have to interact with are kind of stupid and boring. However, if you have to maintain the relationship with them, there are solid practical reasons to become interested in them. It makes them like you more, because people love talking about themselves. And when they like you, your interactions are much more pleasant and you’re significantly more likely to get what you want. So try to find the interesting part of the conversation. Work on understanding them well enough that you can pass an Ideological Turing Test. (Unfortunately, faking interest doesn’t work very well– at least on a subconscious level, most people can tell.)
Gentle and interested are the low-hanging fruit. If you don’t do those two things and you start, your relationships will become significantly better.
Validate. There is going to be a really long thing about validation later, but I can talk about it briefly now. To validate someone, express your understanding of them with words and actions. Show them that their feelings are real, that they’ve been heard, that you aren’t judging them, and that you feel empathy for them. Say “I can see this is stressful for you”, or “I can tell you’re really busy”, or “you must be so disappointed.” Appreciate that their opinions, desires, behaviors, or emotions make sense to them– because, you know what, they do. No one believes something if there is literally zero reason to believe it. You don’t have to agree with them, or think what they’re doing is justified; you just have to show that you know how this makes sense. Imagine talking to a four-year-old who demands cookies for dinner: you can say “That makes sense! Cookies are delicious! I wish I could make that broccoli taste like cookies for you!”, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to give him cookies for dinner.
If you’re, say, fighting with your partner about whether zie’s going to Mom’s birthday dinner or the concert zie was looking forward to for months, your partner obviously cares about getting to go to the concert. But zie also cares about you understanding zir and caring about zir needs. So conveying the message of “it isn’t that I don’t understand how much music means to you, or that I don’t want you to be happy; it’s that my mom’s birthday dinner is really really important to me” takes some of the sting out of not going to the concert.
Part of validation is being sensitive to the person’s needs about the conversation. If they want to have the conversation at a later time, be patient. If they are uncomfortable talking in a public place, go somewhere private. If they’re triggered by yelling, lower your voice.
Easy manner. Smile. Make jokes. Don’t be overly serious or grim. Don’t think that you have to show them how wrong they are. Be light-hearted. Use a soft sell instead of a hard sell. Be willing to ease them along. Remember: a little bit of levity can go a long way in convincing people that you’re a kind, likable person– even if they don’t end up giving you what you want.
Fair. GIVE is all about being fair to other people, but you also have to be fair to yourself. You know how I said that no one believes something if there is literally zero reason to believe it? The same goes for you! Your beliefs, wants, feelings, and actions all make sense in context. In order to validate other people, you don’t have to invalidate yourself. It is okay to want things, and it’s okay to ask for what you want.
Apologies. As in: stop making them. Don’t apologize for having an opinion, for asking for something, for having emotions, for disagreeing, or for existing. When you do something wrong, apologize, sincerely and from the bottom of your heart, once. Then shut up. Bite your tongue if you have to. If you’re a chronic over-apologizer, it can help to replace “I’m sorry” with “thank you”: “thank you for taking time out of your day” instead of “I’m sorry to bother you”; “thank you for taking me to the store” instead of “I’m sorry you had to take me to the store.” (If the apology cannot be coherently replaced with “thank you”, then you are allowed to actually apologize.) And don’t apologize with your body language either: don’t look ashamed or slump or keep your eyes downcast.
Stick to values. Stick to YOUR OWN values. This is important: don’t stick to your mom’s values, or your boyfriend’s values, or that thinkpiece writer’s values, or your best friend’s values, or your pastor’s values. YOUR values. If you are a person who really genuinely cares about kindness, then you should be kind; if you are a person who really genuinely cares about telling it like it is, then you should tell it like it is. Be clear on what you think is the right thing to do, and then stick to your guns. (If you’re having trouble figuring out what your values are, there’s a bit in this post that might help.) There are situations where you might need to sell out your values: even if you think stealing is wrong, if you’re starving, you should steal. But if it isn’t very important, then maintaining your values– even in the face of criticism– is one of the most important parts of maintaining your self-respect.
Truthful. Don’t lie. As in “stick to values”, there are some cases where you have to sacrifice your self-respect in order to obtain a very important goal, but in general, you should tell the truth, even if it’s awkward or scary or means that you won’t get an objective you could through lying. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t make up excuses about why you couldn’t do something: explain what happened and face up to the consequences. One kind of lying that’s really harmful to people’s self-respect is acting helpless when they aren’t. The more you get people to do things that you can do, the more incompetent you feel– it tears away at your ability to feel like a functional human being.
You can both make and say no to requests at different strengths: sometimes you can be flexible and accept the situation as it is, while other times you can try every skill you know to change hte situation and get what you want. A lot of people tend to assume that if they’re intensely upset about something, they should make the request intensely. This isn’t true. For instance, if someone is cruel to you by accident and you’re very upset about it, it can make sense to still be low-intensity in asking. Conversely, if someone did something seriously out of line and you happen to not be very hurt by it, it can make sense to be firmer than your emotions would indicate. The important thing is to ask yourself what kind of intensity is in your best interest. Be intentional! It’s important to note that this isn’t the same thing as smothering or invalidating your feelings: you can feel exactly as upset as you are, but that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.
How do you know how intense to be? You can play something DBT calls the Dime Game. You can play the Dime Game with real or imaginary money.
If the person is able to give you what you want (if you’re making a request), or you unable to give the person what they want (if you’re saying no to a request)– for instance, if you’re a store clerk and someone is asking you to go against store policy– give yourself a dime. If your goals are important, give yourself a dime. If the relationship is shaky, even if it isn’t your fault, even if it is– in fact– the other person’s fault, take away a dime. If your self-respect is served by being firm or by being willing to give in, give yourself a dime or take away a dime as necessary. If you’re making a request and the person is required ethically or legally to give you want you want, or saying ‘no’ and you aren’t required ethically or legally to give the person what they want, give yourself a dime. If you’re asking someone you’re in charge of to do something that’s within your sphere of influence, then give yourself a dime; if the person asking you to do something is not an authority (a boss, a teacher) or is asking for something outside their sphere of authority, give yourself a dime. If what you’re asking for is appropriate to the relationship, or what they’re asking for isn’t appropriate for the relationship, give yourself a dime. “Appropriate” is a bit culturally determined, but you’d be likely to walk your best friend’s dogs even if you wouldn’t do that for a neighbor you talk to once or twice a week, and you’d certainly not do your boss’s laundry.
If not asserting your desires or boundaries would create problems later on in the relationship– if you’ve decided this is the hill you are going to die on– then give yourself a dime. If you’re asking for something, and you normally do things for yourself and are careful to avoid acting helpless when you aren’t, then give yourself a dime. If you’re saying no, and you don’t have anything where your conscience is niggling at you and saying “you know, you really should give up your seat for this elderly man”, then give yourself a dime. If you’re making a clear request supported by the necessary facts, give yourself a dime; conversely, if you’re not sure precisely what it is you’re saying no to, give yourself a dime. (Beware the illusion of transparency!) If you’re asking for something and your relationship is basically reciprocal– you give as much as you take, and you’re willing to give the person some things they ask for– then give yourself a dime; if you’re saying ‘no’ and you don’t owe this person a favor and they don’t do a lot for you– or, even worse, if they’re kind of a freeloader– give yourself a dime. If this is a good time to ask, if they’re not hungry or working or at the climax of the new episode of their favorite TV show or trying to fall asleep, if they’re in the mood to hear you out, then give yourself a dime; on the other hand, if you’re saying no to something and you’re currently busy or hungry or just in a bad mood, give yourself a dime.
Now, look at the amount of money and think to yourself “okay, does this seem like a broadly reasonable amount of money, in my heart of hearts, or has something gone totally wrong here?” Sanity-check it. This is just a set of heuristics, and there are a lot of ways they can go wrong.
Okay! So now you have some money. If you have less than ten cents: if you want something, don’t ask and don’t hint; if you don’t want to do something, try to anticipate the person’s needs and do what they want without being asked. If you have twenty cents: hint indirectly about what you want; do what the other person wants cheerfully. If you have thirty cents: hint openly (“I saw Deadpool is at the theater”); do what the other person wants, but feel free to complain about it. If you have forty cents: ask tentatively (“so, I might to go to Deadpool, if you want to go with me”); do what the other person wants, but make it clear that you’d rather not. If you have fifty cents, ask gracefully (“I want to go to Deadpool, but if you’re busy it’s cool”); say that you would rather not do the thing, but if the person pushes do it. If you have sixty cents: ask confidently (“Let’s go to Deadpool”), but be willing to take a “no”; say no confidently, but be willing to reconsider.
If you have more than seventy cents, it’s time to pull out the techniques like negotiation, ignoring attacks, and broken record. Be nice; be sure to use the GIVE skills along with your intensity skills, particularly if you’re interested in preserving the relationship. Think about the higher intensity requests not as being angrier but as being clearer. You can still be perfectly calm and ask in a high-intensity way. It’s important to communicate in high-intensity ways when you mean to, because otherwise people are going to assume that you actually don’t care that much about whatever the thing is and keep asking you. The more cents you have, the harder you should resist; if you have more than a dollar, you should not take no for an answer (if asking) or say no (if refusing) under any circumstances.
It can be hard to figure out how intense you’re being. If you have friends you trust to talk about this, you can ask them how intense they thought you were, and compare that to how intense you thought you were. If your interactions are often ineffective, you might be consistently overshooting or undershooting.
If you’re in a fight with someone about a very important request or boundary, begin by applying the broken-record and ignoring attacks skills discussed under “mindful”. If the conflict continues, apply DEAR to the current interaction. (This is best used for intensities above seventy cents. If the intensity is below seventy cents, probably the best thing to do in this situation is to give the person what they want, and when you’re both calmer talk about them setting boundaries and making requests in a more reasonable way.)
Begin by describing the current interaction without saying any motives: “you keep asking me out, even though I have said ‘no’ several times.” Don’t say “obviously you think I’m stupid”, “obviously you don’t love me”, or “it’s obvious that you’re not listening to me.” Actually, if you feel tempted to put “obvious” in the sentence, don’t say it. Next, express how you feel about the interaction: “I feel uncomfortable and pressured because you keep doing this, and it’s starting to make me angry.” Keep the focus on yourself and not the other person: don’t say “you’re so defensive” or “don’t patronize me!” And don’t catastrophize: you don’t want to say “I hate you.”
After that, you can assert your desire for the interaction to end: “Please do not ask me again, because my answer is not going to change.” If you’re saying “no”, you want the person to stop bothering you, and if you’re asking for something, you can give the person some time to think about it. Don’t say “would you shut up?” or tell the person to calm down (which is generally very invalidating); avoid “should”. Finally, you can reinforce the person ending the interaction: “this is frustrating for both of us, and I think we’d both like it to stop.” When you want someone to do something for you, you can suggest that you’ll come up with a better offer later. Don’t provide reinforcements you don’t mean: don’t say “I’m going to get a restraining order against you if you keep asking” unless you actually plan on doing that; don’t say “if you don’t do this for me, I’ll never do anything for you ever again”. And don’t insult the person you’re interacting with because they don’t want to give you want you want.
If you did not achieve what you wanted in an interaction, here is a checklist of common mistakes:
- Emotions get in the way of using skills. Are you in a crisis situation– one where you have self-destructive impulses, cannot use your skills, or are generally overwhelmed? If so: practice crisis survival skills like TIPP or self-soothing, practice mindfulness of current emotions, or refocus your attention completely on the present objective.
- Not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing. Did you not know what you were supposed to say? Were you confused about how to use a skill? If so: write out a script for the interaction, practice with a friend or in front of a mirror, or ask for advice from someone you trust.
- Not knowing your goal. Are you undecided about your objective? Are you uncertain whether you care more about the relationship, your self-respect, or your objective? Are you unable to ask for what you want because you’re afraid or ashamed? Are you having a hard time knowing when you’re asking for too much or too little, or saying no too much or too little? If so: write down the pros and cons of different objectives, or use emotion regulation skills on your fear and shame.
- Caring too much about the short term. Are you thinking about “now, now, now” rather than the big picture? Are you making decisions from your emotions that don’t necessarily accord with your values and goals? Are you avoiding painful conversations? If so: do pros and cons about prioritizing the short term and the long term, or wait until you are less emotional.
- Worries, assumptions, and myths. Are you afraid of bad consequences from asking for things (“she won’t like me”, “they think I’m stupid”)? Do you think you don’t deserve to get what you want (“I’m bad”)? Are you insulting yourself (“I’m stupid”, “I never do anything right”, “I’ll probably have a crisis this time just like every other time”)? Do you believe myths about interpersonal effectiveness? If so: act the opposite way that your beliefs want you to, check the facts of the situation, and be willing to challenge your beliefs.
- Environmental factors. Judges, cops, hospitals, jobs, family members, institutionalized racism or sexism, total assholes… there are lots of situations where the environment will keep you from getting what you want, even if you use your skills very well. Are other people more powerful than you? Are you under someone else’s control? Will other people be threatened or dislike you if you get what you want? If so: try problem-solving, work on finding allies, or radically accept that you aren’t going to get what you want.