Our interactions with other people are a common source of stress and can lead to unhealthy behaviors. Many people have spent a lifetime suppressing their own values and goals, live with anger and guilt, or living lives of quiet frustration. Much of that has to do with how we communicate with others: at home, at work, at school, and as we go about our daily lives.
Learning to assert ourselves is crucial in learning to say no, building our self-respect, and dealing with drinking or drugging situations.
Examples of situations where more effective interpersonal skills can be useful:
Š Asking for things
Š Making requests
Š Initiating discussions
Š Saying No
Š Resisting pressure
Š Maintaining/upholding a position or point of view
Working on these skills can help you:
Š get something you want without alienating others.
If you can’t get something you want, another skill to work on is tolerating your distress about that and accepting your situation.
Š improve a relationship.
In a relationship, you will want to learn to improve communication, balance short-term or competing goals with what is good for the relationship, assess unmet desires or inequities, and learn to address issues.
Š improve or maintain your self respect.
Working on your self-respect is simply feeling good about yourself and what you are doing, holding to your values and beliefs, and acting in ways that make you feel competent.
Use role models and get feedback. Watch people who you consider effective. What do they do to make other people want to accomplish goals? How do they interact well with others? You can improve your own interpersonal skills by modeling the behavior of others. This takes practice, and feedback from others is helpful.
Our thinking can get in the way! Some refer to these as ‘worry thoughts’. Others may call them irrational, dysfunctional, or maladaptive thoughts. These beliefs may paralyze us, keep us from trying to interact better, or keep us from voicing our opinions or working on our goals. But we can change our beliefs, dispute thoughts that are inhibiting us, and overcome these obstacles. Change is possible.
Worrying about possible consequences, predicting how others will respond (we have a tendency to predict negative responses). Ask yourself: am I fortune-telling?
More predictions: “they always…she never…he refuses…won’t, can’t….” Learn to change absolute words to more accurate ones.
If your self-image is poor, you may tend to believe that you aren’t worthy of your own goals. “I don’t deserve this…” I remember reading a sad post on a forum once: “I often think I don’t deserve sobriety.”
Our emotions can be crippling. When we are controlled by our emotions, rather than the other way around, it seems that we just whipsaw from drama to drama, and life seems unmanageable. The mindfulness concept discussed in another essay allows us to recognize the emotions that are distressing. Learning emotional control is another skill to work on. As a first step, simply recognizing when you are being governed by anger, fear, anxiety, or frustration can be important. Take a step back (become mindful of the emotion) and then notice what beliefs and unhealthy thoughts are resulting from that emotion. Most people find it useful to write these thoughts down.
Guilt is a common reaction to emotional conditions. And the combination of emotional distress and worrying can lead to indecision. You simply can’t decide what it is you really want. It is normal to have conflicts about goals and to be moderately anxious about discussing them with someone. We all fear rejection and want to be liked. Sometimes it may seem we will be asking for ‘too much’. Chronic indecision can result from these fears.
So think again: do you know people who are able to get things done, still retain the respect of their colleagues and friends, or who seem able to ‘roll with’ situations they can’t control? What skills do they use? Humor? A sympathetic manner? An ability to compromise?
Some key principles:
Knowledge reduces worry. When we are uncertain about the facts or consequences of a situation, we are more anxious. I sell plants and help gardeners deal with pests and diseases. I find that once they understand the basic cycle of the pest, they have less concern about it.
Worry increases indecision. When you can’t control a situation, learning to accept it is very important. Clarifying your own goals and being realistic can be helpful steps to take, and writing these things down is very useful.
Decision-making is a skill. People who aren’t allowed to make decisions get out of the habit. It may be that you have gradually allowed a relationship to become imbalanced regarding finances, decision-making, career issues, children.
Asserting yourself can be uncomfortable because it is a new experience or may lead to conflict. Your work situation may be authoritarian; if you’re in the military, asserting yourself will have very adverse consequences! Your mother may have ‘always’ bossed you around. So recognize where in your life you can make decisions, and where it is possible to enact change. Reaffirming your own values can be helpful, whether by spiritual or intellectual means.
Some suggestions for improving interpersonal effectiveness, paraphrased from articles by the creator and author of DBT, Marsha Linehan (all in the public domain).
Š In relationships:
Don’t let hurts and problems build up. Examples? How can you prevent problems from getting worse? Resolve conflicts before they get overwhelming. End hopeless relationships.
Š Dealing with priorities and demands:
If you feel overwhelmed, reduce or put off low-priority demands. How can you set priorities more effectively? Ask others for help; say no when necessary. Recognize when you are having difficulty saying no. Try to create some structure.
Š Balancing needs and preferences:
What are the things you do because you ‘want’ to? What are the things you do because you ‘should’? Do you feel these are out of balance in your life? If others don’t seem to value your priorities, you will want to work on getting your opinions taken seriously (communicate more effectively).
To reorder your priorities, you may want to get others to do things. Examples? You may value your free time enough to pay someone to do housework or yardwork, or take a pay cut to shed some job responsibilities. Perhaps you can share resources with others (for day care, for example). And you can learn to say no to unwanted requests.
Interpersonal effectiveness often involves getting others to do things for you, which may seem rude or bossy. But learning to assert your self can be a key practice in attaining sobriety or changing other unhealthy behaviors. Why? Because peer pressure is a major obstacle to abstinence and change. You can change your thinking, communicate more effectively, stay true to your values, and learn to recognize your competence. Then you can say ‘yes’ when you want to, and mean ‘no’ when you say it.
Exercise: try to think of recent situations where you have
Š allowed others to set your schedule or make commitments for you when you had other preferences.
Š accepted statements of beliefs with which you disagreed without expressing your opinion.
Š changed your behavior to suit someone else’s preference, even though it bothered you to do so.
Write a description of one such situation. Express your feelings and opinions about the situation. Describe a more desirable outcome. Roleplay (write the dialogue if you are alone) what you could have said differently: how you could have asserted yourself by asking for what you want or saying no clearly. Describe beliefs or fears you have about that scenario, and dispute those beliefs one by one.
Exercise: Describe a situation where you saw someone assert herself or himself effectively. List the character traits you observed, the things that person said, and how the other people reacted. Describe how they avoided conflict or managed it. Can you describe a recent situation of your own where you could have applied those traits or techniques?