By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Welcome back to this series of posts on interpersonal effectiveness! I’m so happy you decided to take a deeper look at what interpersonal effectiveness is and how to use it in your daily life. In my last post, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills, we discussed:
Interpersonal effectiveness is how we interact and communicate with the world around us
Stress and cognitive distortions can filter how we interact with people
By slowing down, we can improve our connection with people around us
Interpersonal effectiveness is a foundation in DBT, and is something everyone can benefit from. In this post, we are going to talk about one part of interpersonal effectiveness: objective effectiveness. This particular set of skills is all about the most effective way to identify what you need out of your relationships. It’s all about how to ask for those needs, and (most importantly), how to resolve any issues with the person you are communicating with if your needs cannot be met (wait, did I just describe assertive communication?).
When you think about it, objective effectiveness plays a role in every part of our life: working with co-workers, parenting our children (or parenting our parents), interacting with strangers, even talking to a store associate when you can’t find the toilet paper. Needless to say (especially in the last case), this is a very important skill to learn.
How does objective effectiveness work in the brain? That is a great question! While I was preparing to write the post, I searched high and low about the impact of objective effectiveness on the brain. Low and behold (just like my post, Why is Change So Hard?), finding research directly related to objective effectiveness is at best difficult. Why do you think that is? Could it be because objective effectiveness, like it’s parent skillset, interpersonal effectiveness, is constantly happening? Perhaps. Upon further digging, I found some information about how objective effectiveness impacts the brain in another therapy theory: attachment theory.
To make it brief, attachment theory is the study of how we, as humans, attach to other humans. There are four types of attachment, all surrounding how secure we feel in asking for our needs to be met. When we feel safe, secure, and confident with the people around us, our brains release the neurotransmitters oxytocin, GABA, and glutamate. As our brains do this, the prefrontal cortex is able to pass information through the thalamus to the hippocampus, saying “This is so nice! People are so loving and caring.” In turn, this allows our darn amygdala to put down any cognitive distortions that are being used when we take in information. Now, if we aren’t so secure with the people around us, that darn amygdala is going to trigger the release of the hormone, cortisol. If you remember from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, you’ll know this triggers that darn amygdala to go on high alert. The cognitive distortion filters come out and suddenly our prefrontal cortex is scrambling to figure out if there are any facts to disprove the information that is being funneled in by that darn amygdala.
There are a lot of things that can impact our connections with other people. Examples of this include an abuse history, emotionally neglectful relationships, poor past experiences with customer services, substance use, and a partridge in a pear tree. These events shrink our hippocampus and make it so that it remembers the bad situations. Since we can only remember the bad, we don’t trust that the people around us can meet our needs. This can throw our interpersonal effectiveness skills out the window.
If you have found yourself experiencing any of the above, you know how hard it can be to trust that what you want (and need) out of a relationship will actually happen. That is where DEAR MAN comes in to play. DEAR MAN is a coping skill that allows us to:
- challenge the information the hippocampus has stored about getting your needs met
- identify what we need from the relationship
- how to ask for our needs in a respectful way
- providing ourselves with respect
Doesn’t that sound like a great idea? I think it does. I’m all about finding a way we can rewire the brain so we can feel good, mentally, again. Part of feeling good is having relationships we can rely on (and release oxytocin with). That is why DEAR MAN is an important skill: it helps us realize we are not alone.
Coping skills alert!
If you have not guessed it yet, DEAR MAN is another acronym. There sure are a lot of acronyms in therapy, aren’t there? That doesn’t mean that they don’t have science behind why they work! DEAR MAN outlines all the steps we need to make objective effectiveness work in our relationships. By practicing these steps (all that darn practicing sure is flexing that limbic system!) you will be able to improve your ability to communicate clearly with people around you (better known as assertive communication).
“D” stands for describing things objectively. We’ve talked about the importance of finding the objective facts in many previous posts. By sharing what we objectively need, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t need to sift through all of the other information bombarding it to know what the point of focus needs to be. This gives that darn amygdala little time and little information to try to filter the information and go off catastrophizing things again. The end result of being objective means the person you are communicating with will have the information to be on the same page as you. What does that mean? That means oxytocin can be released and action can be sparked by the person you are communicating with!
“E” represents express. This one I can feel readers tighten up about. Expressing ourselves mean we have to own those feelings. For example, if I am the only one taking out the garbage in my house, it is simple for me to say “you guys are so lazy! Why am I the only one who does this?” Now, did I express myself? Most definitely. Did I take ownership of how I was feeling? Absolutely not! If anything, my language was more on the abusive side than helpful. Let’s look at that situation now from an angle where I take ownership. If I am the only one taking the garbage out and I need help, I could say “I’m feeling so frustrated because the garbage is always full. Can we talk about how to fix that?” We took ownership of how we were feeling (the “I feel” part) and shared what was causing the feeling (the garbage being full). We also expressed what we needed to do to resolve that feeling (the talking about how to fix it part). “I feel” statements are great because we are labeling emotions, not reacting to them.
“A” ties right in there with express. A is for assertiveness. For people who are more passive in their communication, assertiveness may feel aggressive. Rest assured, when we are assertive, we are not aggressive. My above example about my family being lazy? That is aggressive. How can you tell? Reread that example and say, out-loud, how your body reacted to that statement. Did you tense up? Start to feel anxious? Were you ready to pull out your dukes and fight back? Yup, those are all signs of aggressive language. Assertive language comes from being clear about what you can and cannot do. Another great example? Making dinner. If someone asks “hey, can you make dinner tonight?” what would be an passive response? Perhaps that passive response would be “I don’t know if I can” and then goes on to avoid any communication with that person prior to dinner. An aggressive response would be “Stop putting the work on me! You know I hate cooking!” Both of these responses leave us with extra stress that isn’t needed. Now an assertive response would be like “I won’t be able to make dinner as I’m working late.” That response is clear, is honest, and expresses why you cannot meet that need. How does that help the brain? It helps because we are vocalizing a boundary to help keep our mental health, healthy.
“R” is the all-important reinforcement. When we engage in any conversation, we naturally do things that reward people we are talking to. Think about it: When we say “thank you” or when we let the person we are talking to know how their help in meeting our goals will impact us, we are rewarding people. You know what that means: feel good neurotransmitter release! This act of getting our goals met gives us a dump of oxytocin (which helps us feel connected and respected), a sprinkle of serotonin (because getting our needs met makes us happy), large helping of dopamine (because we accomplished something), and all served with a side of GABA (responsible for calming us down when we make that connection). Maybe it is just me, but I think the science proves the R is the most important step of DEAR MAN!
Time to move on to the M in DEAR MAN. “M” is all about the mindfulness. Before you say “didn’t we talk about mindfulness already in Mindfulness: The Art of Being Calm, Cool, and Collected?”, hear me out. Mindfulness in a conversation is a tad different than the mindfulness we talked about as a coping skill. In general, mindfulness is all about being present in the moment and moving distractions aside to do so. In the case of mindfulness in conversation, we are staying focused on our goal and avoiding getting sidetracked. Putting our prefrontal cortex to work, we are prioritizing our goals before other things get done. A great example of this would be our pesky to-do list. When we pick one thing to do at a time, and focus just on that task, we are being mindful of that task. So when we are in conversation, and that person says “lets talk about what kind of dinner you’re going to bring home tonight,” you can use the E in DEAR MAN to say “I do want to talk about dinner, but after we finish setting up who is taking care of the garbage today.” This assertiveness may make you start to feel like a broken record (especially if you are talking with someone who is trying to multi task too many things), but it is this broken record feeling that is helping you keep your eyes on the prize of meeting your goal.
Now, if someone comes at you verbally because you are holding your boundary: use some good ol’ fashion distress tolerance to ignore their attempts to build a barrier to your goals. Use techniques to calm your body down, ask to take a break from the conversation, DO NOT ENGAGE IN BULLYING BEHAVIOR, use radical acceptance, or try opposite action. Part of being mindful in a conversation is to understand conflict can, and may, happen. That is okay. Conflict doesn’t mean someone isn’t able to meet your needs, they may need more information on what your needs are.
Our verbal language is not the only way we communicate our needs to people. Our appearance and body language can signal our needs as well. That is where the second “A” comes into play. A stands for appearing confident. When our body language meets our verbal communication, it provides our prefrontal cortex with a clear message as to what is being asked. Standing tall, giving good eye contact, and avoiding unnecessary fidgeting or hand gestures, will allow the person you’re communicating with to understand clearly what your goals are of the communication. So if we are someone who tends to crack their knuckles when we feel nervous and anxious, we may come across in a conversation that we are not assertive with what we need. Let’s hope that everybody’s prefrontal cortex has been given a clear message by showing we are confident in what we know that we need.
We finally made it to the letter “N”! Before we get there, I want to thank you for sticking it out with this post. There is a lot of science behind effectively communicating and meeting our needs. All of that science will help you better understand why these steps are so important for developing objective effectiveness. Now on to the letter N!
“N” stands for negotiation. When we are talking with another person, you may find out through their communication they might not be able to fully meet your needs, however, are willing to come up with a compromise to meet the majority of your needs. This is where it’s important to negotiate the goals that are most important to you. Let’s put this in example form shall we? Let’s say we go to work this week and we get bombarded with projects, extra tasks, and other little meetings above what we usually do. If we are able to negotiate, we will be able to assertively say to our boss “I can handle this extra work for a week, but this cannot be the new normal.” When we do this, we are speaking assertively, identifying what we are able to do, and able to compromise on special occasions. When we communicate this, we are showing the person we are connecting with that we are willing to be flexible while still meeting what our goal is. Another example of this could be seen in the garbage example we used earlier. I can easily communicate with my family “hey, I have no problem doing the garbage, but if somebody could take it out before it overflows when I’m not home, that would be appreciated.” Note how I was assertive with my need that I can’t be the only person doing garbage. Also note in this example that I offered flexibility and a compromise. When we look at this same step in our brain, what we are doing is activating our hypothalamus to pair the appropriate emotion with the action and information we are seeing. In essence, we are actively rewiring the brain!
Whew! That was a lot of information! I am so proud that you took the time to invest in your mental health by reading how to use objective effectiveness in your day-to-day communication. The journey through interpersonal effectiveness is a hard one as these skills typically require us to communicate with other people. I assure you, when you invest in these skill sets, your brain will thank you!
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- Federici, A., Wisniewski, L., & Ben-Porath, D. (2012). Description of an intensive dialectical behavior therapy program for multidiagnostic clients with eating disorders. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90(3), 330-338. Reviewed July 28, 2021
- Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Reviewed on July 27, 2021
- Lott, Deborah (1998). Brain Development, Attachment and Impact on Psychic Vulnerability. Published Psychiatric Times, Psychiatric Times Vol 15 No 5, Volume 15, Issue 5. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/brain-development-attachment-and-impact-psychic-vulnerability
- Mairanz, Alyssa (2019). Interpersonal Effectiveness: A DBT Skill. Retrieved from https://eymtherapy.com/blog/practice-interpersonal-effectiveness-dbt-skill/