Interpersonal Conflict is amazingly complex.
A client recently shared a story about an interaction they had with their parent that had dredged up some old resentments and anger. This interaction resulted in the client becoming extremely upset, and responding with words they later regretted. Through processing in therapy, the client realized that, though their reasons for becoming upset during the argument were valid, the guilt and shame they felt for their behavior threatened to negate these valid feelings completely as they instead expended energy trying to mitigate the perceived damage to the relationship (i.e. attending to their parent’s hurt feelings). It was, they realized, a lost opportunity for the two to understand one another.
Ouch. We’ve all been there.
Knowing that this type of interaction between the client and their family was part of a repeating pattern, we decided to try and change the pattern using DBT’s ‘Interpersonal Effectiveness’ module. The client applied the DEAR MAN skills to address the communication difficulties between the relationship dyad. For the client, being able to proactively address the conflict by “describing” the interaction, as well as to “express” their feelings about their ongoing communication issues was a healthy start. (In the past the client had avoided talking about any problem until the behavior/act had already occurred.) Next, the client “asserted” themselves by stating what they wished the outcome of the situation would be (in this case, it was for both people to feel heard and understood, as well as for them to receive the autonomy and space they desired). They then “reinforced” the relationship by keeping desired outcomes positive (involving their parent in their life in other ways while still respecting their autonomy).
The “MAN” part of the exercise was critical: here is where clients often let emotions take over, threatening to dismantle all that hard work. For the client, this means being “mindful” of maintaining their position without allowing the conversation to get sidetracked or for emotions to build up and overpower the rational part of the conflict. Mindfulness techniques such as deep, even breaths help one stay calm in an interpersonal conflict. The client modeled a calm, competent “appearance,” using nonverbal language such as steady eye contact and a clear speaking voice. Finally, the client allowed space for flexibility, the “negotiate” phase. By turning over the problem to the other person in the dyad, they was able to ask ask their parent about possible solutions to the conflict.
Using DEAR MAN technique takes practice; and the results can be worthwhile, particularly if the client’s goal is to feel heard and understood. While we cannot control others’ behavior, we can certainly put forth the effort to control our own. Practicing good communication skills enhances our feelings of self-worth and confidence, while reducing the feelings of resentment and shame that often go hand-in-hand with communication avoidance.
Written by Jessica Horine, PLPC