Speak Your Mind Without The Fear Of Fallout; How Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills Can Guide Challenging Conversations


Chances are, you’ve been faced with some challenging conversations within the past few weeks. Whether your views and beliefs differ from those of your friends, your partner, your coworkers, your parents, or your extended family whom you only interact with on social media, I’m sure many of us can agree that It’s hard to have an honest conversation about things that have historically divided us. Maybe you have chosen to engage in anti-racism work, but you are struggling to engage in the difficult conversations with family members, or other people in your life who don’t share the same beliefs as you. There are many factors that contribute to why it is so hard to engage in the hard conversations.

Some of these factors include:

  • Not knowing what you want to get out of the conversation
  • Forgetting your goals
  • Allowing your emotions and thoughts to get in the way
  • Allowing the emotions of others to get in the way

A common thread that binds these barriers together is fear. Fear of not being taken seriously. Fear of being unable to repair relationships if they are ruptured. Fear of being unable to resolve conflict. Fear of not having the tools to engage in an effective way. Accompanying this fear is a series of stories that we tell ourselves, or myths that we have convinced ourselves to be true. Some myths that get in our way of having difficult conversations include:

  • “If they say no, I’ll be embarrassed”
  • “I should be willing to sacrifice my own needs for others”
  • “They should know that their behavior hurts my feelings, I shouldn’t have to tell them”
  • “We might disagree, and I don’t know if I can handle that”

So, where do we start? Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, an evidence based therapeutic modality created by Marsha Linehan, offers interpersonal effectiveness skills to aid in having these challenging conversations. The acronym DEARMAN GIVE FAST provides a template to clearly and effectively map out your points to get your voice heard. First, it’s crucial that you clarify your priorities to determine what it is that you need. Ask yourself, “Is the goal to get what I want, keep or improve the relationship, or keep or improve my self-respect?”. In some cases, the answer is all of the above.

Getting What You Want

The goal of getting what you want can also look like saying no to an unwanted or unreasonable request, resolving an interpersonal conflict, or having your opinion and point of view taken seriously. If your objective is one of these, try DEARMAN:

Describe: Describe the situation objectively, and stick to the facts. There will be room for emotions later. Tell the person exactly what you are reacting to to be sure that you are both engaged in the same conversation and on the same page.

Example: “You used a racial slur to describe a friend of mine.”

Express: You cannot assume that the other person knows how you feel, or that they know that you were impacted by what they said. Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Be mindful of using “I statements” rather than “you should” statements.

Example: “When you use racial slurs, I feel frustrated, angry, and upset.”

Assert: Clearly ask for what you want, or say no to something that you are not comfortable with.

Example: “I would like you to refrain from using offensive language.”

Reinforce: Reinforce, or reward the person ahead of time by explaining the positive effects of what you are asking for, or saying no to.

Example: “I would feel more comfortable being in your home and attending family gatherings if you remove offensive and racist language from your vocabulary and use respectful words to describe Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color.”

Stay Mindful: Remain focused on your goals. Do not get distracted or allow the conversation to move to a different topic. While it may be uncomfortable, be a “broken record” or continue asking until you are heard. If the other person responds in a way that is attacking or threatening, ignore these attacks and do not allow distractions. Stay focused on your goal.

Appear Confident: Practice tone of voice, physical body language, and maintain good eye contact. If possible, ask a friend or someone who is objective or shares your views to role play prior to having the conversation.

Negotiate: Focus on what will work, and offer to find other solutions to the problem.

Example: “If you are unsure of what to say, I am happy to have a conversation about what language is appropriate, and what language is offensive.”

Relationship Effectiveness

The goal of keeping and/or improving the relationship can also look like balancing immediate goals with the good of a long-term relationship, and maintaining relationships that matter to you despite disagreements. If relationship effectiveness is your need, try GIVE:

Be Gentle: You are likely feeling complex emotions, but do not let these emotions derail the conversation. Remain nice and respectful throughout. Steer clear of verbal and physical attacks, threats, judgment, and nonverbal sneering.

Act Interested: Listen and appear interested in what the other person has to say. This one is particularly challenging when you come into the conversation with assumptions. Be open to hearing and holding space for the other person’s point of view.

Validate: Use words and actions to show that you respect the other person’s feelings. Attempt to put yourself in their shoes to see their perspective.

Example: “I realize this is hard for you as it’s different from what you have always known.”

Have an Easy Manner: Use humor, smile, and be light-hearted and open. Your easy manner does not negate the seriousness of the conversation, but it may make the content more approachable. Use of humor is not appropriate if it is used sarcastically or at the expense of someone else.

Keeping Your Self-Respect

The goal of keeping and improving self-respect can also look like acting in a way that makes you feel capable and effective despite the nature of the relationship. This skill can be helpful when the relationship is not as important, but the goal is to maintain your respect. This tool can be used when calling your local lawmakers and legislators and advocating for your voice to be heard, and for systemic changes to be made. In this case, try FAST:

Be Fair: Validate your own feelings and needs and refrain from attacking, threatening, or dehumanizing the other person.

No Apologies: Do not apologize for having an opinion, using your voice, and standing up for what is right.

Stick to Values: YOUR values. Be clear on what you believe, and do not compromise your values or integrity.

Be Truthful: Do not lie or embellish the truth in order to be heard. Only speak to what you know to be true, and be sure to have researched your point so you can back up what you are asking for with facts.

DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha M. Linehan. Copyright 2015 by Marsha M. Linehan

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