Interpersonal Effectiveness… What is that?!

Welcome to the newest edition of Recovery Thursday! Are you ready for some more DBT skills? ‘Cause I am! Before we get into some Interpersonal Effectiveness, I want to bring you attention to the first ever guest post hosted on Parallel Dichotomy, which is part one of a personal narrative about Medication Induced Psychosis. If you haven’t read it yet, please do and send Lori some love in the comment section! Also, if you missed it, I was recently published by The Mighty again, and I’m really passionate about the topic of my article. It’s all about the immense, sometimes deadly, stigma around psychiatric hospitalization.  You can read it here and I would really appreciate it if you could give it some love and share it directly from The Mighty Site!

Alright, per the new schedule (which, if I may say, is working really well so far! Thank you all for your patience with me through the past 8 months as I struggled to find consistency!), today is a recovery based post.

Today, I’d like to go over the basics of Interpersonal Effectiveness, a pillar of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. We’ve hit on some serious DBT skills on Parallel Dichotomy before, with the four part emotion regulation series, but today, we’re going to be working in an entirely different area of DBT.

When I was introduced to interpersonal effective, it was described as “how to get what you want in relationships.” With my somewhat off-base view of the definition of “getting what you want”, my visceral reaction was, “I’m not looking to manipulate others and have power over them!” and I was shocked that such a concept would be addressed in a group therapy session!

See, my view of a “good” relationship involved consistent self-sacrifice. This, it turns out, is not healthy. (Which was one of many reasons I found myself in a group therapy session to begin with!)

Interpersonal Effectiveness is actually just about how to be assertive and set boundaries in healthy relationships. Which are necessary skills to maintain the wellness of yourself and those with whom you find yourself in relation. As I mentioned, it is a pillar of DBT, so there are many facets to it. Overall, though, in its simplest form, interpersonal effectiveness is about knowing when and how to ask for something for yourself and when and how to say “no” to a request made of you.

As is common in the DBT curriculum, acronyms abound! You may have heard some of them if you’re familiar with group or hospital-based therapy. D.E.A.R.M.A.N., G.I.V.E., and F.A.S.T. are my personal favorites.

But before you can use any of the skills linked to those creative letter strands, you have to be aware of what kinds of relationships you have. We all know (at least in theory) that there are many different relationships with varying degrees of closeness and intimacy. Your relationship with your coworkers is likely very different from your relationship with your parents. You relationship with the clerk at your regular gas station is much different than a friendship. People that you barely know don’t need your whole life story, but you should be able to open up about those details to people that you know very well.

In all of these circumstances, relationships fall under three general categories:


Positive relationships will feature give and take on the part of both parties involved and will be balanced overall.

Negative relationships will infringe on the Personal Bill of Rights (featured in the post Self-Love is NOT a Bad Thing), it will not feature a respect of boundaries, and it will be one-sided but not agreed upon.

Neutral relationships are strictly task related. Interacting with the guys at the gas station, your server when you’re out to dinner, customer service representatives, cashiers, etc.

It is important, in learning when and how to properly communicate our feelings, wants, and needs, to recognize the type of relationship and whether or not our desires are appropriate. Oftentimes, I know, I struggle to express my feelings with the “correct” degree of emotion. Something seemingly small may happen and I may completely fly off the handle; conversely, something may happen that really makes me angry or uncomfortable and I will minimize it, put caveats and modifiers on it, and try to pretend that it is not a big deal at all.

Building healthy, effective relationship skills is, at the end of the day, about getting your emotions and expression of emotions to match and being able to clearly communicate what you want and need. It’s about learning the balance between when to compromise and when to hold firm.

In order to do this, we all need to understand clearly what our objectives are in an relationship. Clarifying priorities is really important. To get started in doing this, ask yourself:

  • How important is it that I get what I want or succeed in attaining my goal?
  • How important is it that I maintain the relationship?
  • How important is it that I maintain my self-respect?

Once priorities are clearly defined, it then becomes easier to figure out the best course of action to meet those priorities.

As an introduction to the topic of Interpersonal Effectiveness, and to allow you to begin to measure your own communication strengths and the areas which could use some T.L.C. and improvement, I’d invite you to reflect briefly on the following statements. Which are true for you, which do you wish were true, and which (if any) do you think are ridiculous?

  • I’m skilled at asking for what I want.
  • I have people in my life who I can ask for help.
  • I’m a “yes-person.”
  • I don’t know how to ask for help.
  • When people say “no”, it means they dislike me.
  • I have trouble saying “no” to requests.
  • I say “yes” so much that I don’t have time or energy to do anything for myself.
  • Other people really aren’t that interested in helping me.
  • I rarely do favors for friends or family.
  • When someone tells me “no” once, it means they will never say “yes”.
  • When I want to say “no”, I make up excuses to avoid having to say it.
  • I can tolerate and accept when others say “no” to me.
  • I am deeply hurt and upset when others say “no” to me.
  • I get upset thinking about asking for help from others.

Learning interpersonal effectiveness requires a level of reflection and radical honesty with yourself. Are you in healthy relationships, or are your connections unhealthy? Are you someone who tends to feel “overly attached” to strangers or acquaintances? Do you tend toward being passive and sacrificing your core values to keep others happy?

These are the kinds of questions I’d like to invite you to consider today. I’ve spent countless hours mulling them over myself. And I still struggle with them frequently, to be honest.

Sometimes I really need to remind myself that I’m only 8 months out from my hospitalization and, while I have done a lot of work, there is much more to do. I remind myself of DBT skills daily. Interpersonal Effectiveness is one of those skills that I’d like to share with you over the next few weeks, so that maybe we can all get a little more comfortable with boundaries and autonomy together.


As always, I’d love to hear what you think! Lemme know in the comment section below, or on twitter! (Tweet me @paradichotomy)

Thanks for reading! I hope you all have a wonderful day! Check in tomorrow for the return of Friday Finds!

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