By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
Hello and welcome back to the series of posts on interpersonal effectiveness skills. Today, were talking about a very important part of interpersonal effectiveness: relational effectiveness. What is relational effectiveness? I’m happy you asked! Let’s start exploring how we use relational effectiveness every day in our lives.
Relational effectiveness is part of the pillar of interpersonal effectiveness that we use in DBT treatment. By definition, relational effectiveness is our ability to interact with other people. When you think about it, the way we interact with people can say a lot about what we are experiencing. For example, if we’re having a nasty day and we are cranky, we may come across as bitter or blunt to the people we talk to. Even if we try to “put on a smile,” our body language may say ‘just leave me the hell alone!”
The goal of relational effectiveness skills is to ensure healthy communication is happening between you and another person.– Carissa Weber
The science behind why relational effectiveness skills work isn’t outlined in one or two specific studies. Rather, it is outlined through various studies of human interaction. Now, as I’ve been doing research for this particular post, it is been hard to differentiate how different communication styles impact the brain versus how different kinds communication impacts the brain. Either way, these communications with people have a very similar way of working in our brain.
Almost all of our verbal communication involves our prefrontal cortex (that amazing part of our brain that helps us process objective facts), the insula (which we learned about helps process our spatial awareness), and other parts of our brain used for our sensory needs (like the occipital lobe for what we see, our parietal lobe for how we process movement, and the temporal lobe for our hearing). These integral parts are responsible not just for formatting how we will communicate with a person (whether it is verbally or through our body language), but also in how we listen to and process the information the other person is giving us.
This is where that darn amygdala comes in. As the rest of the brain is trying to stay with the facts (and just the facts) the senses are giving us, that darn amygdala is combing through the hippocampus and hypothalamus to find how we have reacted to this information in the past. This is what helps puts emotion in to our reactions.
So as you are calmly talking to someone, and your darn amygdala picks up on something iy may or may not like (for example, the other person mentions they dislike pizza and you would eat pizza for every meal every day), it may tell the thalamus to impulsively lead the charge to belittle someone for not agreeing with you. Likewise, that darn amygdala may have found a memory stored away when you had a bad pizza experience (seriously, I don’t think there is a bad pizza experience out there), it may relay to your prefrontal cortex to talk about that experience instead.
During this time, the prefrontal cortex is like “Whoa! Look what you just did to that person!” It gives you flashes of sensory information that tells that darn amygdala you did a wrong (insert a sad face here). This leaves us nurturing those negative core beliefs and cognitive distortions, ultimately leading to us feeling bad about ourselves.
Coping Skills Alert
This is where the skill, GIVE comes in. You guessed it: another acronym!! What is GIVE? Great question! GIVE is a set of rules we can use to help keep our relationships healthy or engage in new relationships in a healthy way. Let me explain a bit more.
GIVE helps us remain respectful to the people we are interacting with and helps guide our body language to convey the same amount of respect and interest we expect from others. Not only does this ensure your prefrontal cortex and your insula have accurate information, this allows the triple-f response to not become activated by that darn amygdala’s ultimate dream of not being rejected.
As we start off this acronym, let’s start at the beginning with G: gentleness. Some of you may be wondering, gentleness in a conversation? How so? Let me explain it through an example. Have you ever known what you want to ask someone, like to help out with the dishes, but rather than asking, you just tell them to do it? When we look at this example, we aren’t asking for assistance, we are telling them they will assist us. When we do this, we are not taking into consideration the other person’s needs or even their ability to meet our needs.
Being gentle with people means we must be able to tolerate if someone tells us they cannot fulfill our need. That assertive boundary they are placing (which is a healthy coping skill) needs to be respected. This leads into another part of being gentle: acceptance. Refraining from making threats, laying down guilt trips, or using manipulative language to co-hearse somebody to violate their own boundary to meet your needs it is not being gentle. Likewise, if someone is using the same exact behaviors and communication tactics, they are not being gentle with you.
The next letter, I, represents being interested. How many of us have had conversations with people and we truly are not interested in what they are talking about? As a parent, I can tell you I may or may not have tuned out conversation’s my children have had about their favorite movie after they’ve talked about it a thousand times in that day. In reality, when we do this we are disengaged from the actual conversation and meeting our needs or the needs of the person we are talking to. Using active listening skills, like head nods or repeating back what you heard, allows another person to physically see that you are invested in that conversation.
The skill of being interested and engaged in conversation also brings up an important skill: patience. Often times, we want to relate to the people were talking to by interjecting our opinion, our experiences with the same topic, or share something that popped randomly into our brain. By showing patients and refraining from those sudden urges allows the other person to feel connected with you. Do you know what that means? That means the release of oxytocin in our brain! That oxytocin release will help both you and this other person develop trust and respect between one another!
Moving on, we have the letter V. Validation is huge when it comes to nurturing healthy relationships. Validating someone else’s feelings is called external validation. This is where we demonstrate our unbiased attention and acknowledge what another person is experiencing. As we validate people, we are being sensitive to their needs. We are also acknowledging limitations that may prevent another person from meeting our needs. When was the last time you received external validation? Do you remember how you physically felt you received it? For me, when somebody lets me know that I have heard what they are saying, I can feel the dopamine and serotonin being released as a smile comes across my face. That external validation allows me to know that I am helping someone their needs.
Last but not least, we have the letter E. The capital E represents easy. Come again? When we talk about easy in building healthy relationships, we are relating more to an easy manner of discussion. When we approach people in a relaxed manner, we are engaging people in a softer, dare I say it, gentler way. By sharing humor and relaxing our body posture, we are creating an inviting area to discuss how to meet one another’s needs.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes some situations call for urgency. For example, if we’re getting ready to leave the house and I can’t find my wallet, there will be an urgent request to help me find where my wallet ran off to (note to self: always check the play kitchen oven!). But this is done only when there is urgency to a situation and constantly coming to people in a pressured way can make it hard for them to connect with what you really need. This is where practicing some good old fashion distress tolerance prior to asking for help can improve your communication.
How can we practice GIVE? That is a great question! This acronym seems more like a guideline versus an actual practicing skill. Rest assured, you can still check in with yourself prior to engaging with people to ensure you are able to be gentle, interested, prepared to validate people, and take a relaxed approach. This thinking before acting takes time and practice to master (there is that dirty “P” word again!). As you slow down and check in with this acronym before and during a conversation, your prefrontal cortex will start to identify facts about the situation that will support or disprove how you are currently reacting. Do you know what that means? That means it is slowly taking the driver’s wheel from that darn and putting itself in charge!
I want to thank you for your time in reading this post. Interpersonal effectiveness skills can be difficult to conquer. But when we slow down, take a breath, and take accountability for how we are reacting, we can grow healthy relationships that are supportive!
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- Anderson, Patti (2006). Interpersonal Effectiveness Module (IPE). Retrieved from https://redemptionpsychiatry.com/docs/DBT–Interpersonal_Effectiveness_Packet.pdf
- Greene, Paul (2021). Your Easy Guide to the DBT’s GIVE Skills. Retrieved from https://www.manhattancbt.com/archives/3498/dbt-give-skills/
- Hasson, Uri (2017). This is your brain on communication. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/this-is-your-brain-on-communication/
- Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. Reviewed September 23, 2021