DBT Skills – Interpersonal Effectiveness

First a Little Backstory….

I am an outlier.  At key points in my childhood, certain critical developmental needs weren’t fulfilled.  As a result, I often find myself situations where I’m left to attempt to “fake normal”. The social ostracism was eons ago, however I still feel awkward in social situations.   Inevitably, the reality of my different-ness springs up from time to time.  I find myself mourning an abstract loss of something I “missed out on”. I regret the baggage left behind.

This post reviews interpersonal skills taught in DBT Skills Groups.  I participated in one some time ago, when I first sought counseling.  As a student therapist, I find myself relying on many of these basic life skills.  I’m learning quickly that my quirks, insecurities, personality traits, and life history, are incorporated within my work.

“Interpersonal effectiveness skills are a composite of social-skills training. Keeping your relationships healthy and alive requires interpersonal skills.” (McKay, et al, 2007).

What are Your Interpersonal Goals?

When you find yourself in a situation that requires the conscious use of interpersonal skills.  The first question to ask yourself is what are your goals for this situation?  Here’s a list of interpersonal goals I’ve been struggling with lately:

*ATTENDING TO A RELATIONSHIP:  My sister and I have been attempting to rebuild our relationship.  She’s was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, and has been struggling in her recovery.  Meanwhile, I’ve been interning throughout the summer and working full time.  This has left me with a heavy work load of almost 70 hours a week.  The mom & sister guilt has builded significantly these last three months.  I’ve decided to step back and take a quarter off.
*BALANCING PRIORITIES vs. DEMANDS: I have so many demands on my time lately, my perfectionist standards and inner “energizer bunny” have taken over.  I “lean into” the work, down coffee by the gallon, and amp up my energy level, refusing to give into a challenge.  However, feedback from my therapist, mother and husband have forced me to reconsider this strategy.  I need to step back and reprioritize.
*BALANCING WANTS vs. SHOULD’S:  I’m re-examining the demands left by others, as well as my own needs. What are the should’s?  Wants consists of things important to me, like quality time with family.  Should’s are responsibilities of others in order of importance.   Essential should’s pertaining to my role as a healthcare worker, mother, and wife.  All else is a secondary issue, to be balanced around these priorities.  
*BUILDING MASTERY & SELF-RESPECT:  Finally, learning to interact with others masterfully while meeting their needs, and asking for specific requests is critical.  How do I want to feel by about myself afterwards?

Three Key Relationship Goals.

DBT Interpersonal Skills are designed to address three key categories of relationships goals: (1) getting others to do what you want, (2) keeping relationships healthy & (3) retaining your self respect.


Analyzing a situation & defining interpersonal goals.

Above, I provide examples of several interpersonal goals.  I’ve obviously had time to think about these situations.  In DBT Skills groups, practice exercises are utilized in order to determine what specific interpersonal skills are needed to meet our goals in a situation.

*STEP ONE:  Describe the event.  Who is involved in this situation?  What problems and/or issues need to be addressed?  
*STEP TWO:  Consider each of the three main categories of personal goals.  what results do you desire for this situation.  For example, is there something you want somebody to do? What are your long-term goals for this relationship in order to keep it healthy?  Finally, how do you want to feel about yourself when all is “said and done”? 
*STEP THREE:  Re-examine and prioritize these three goals.  What is most important?  For example, my primary goal with my sister is a long-term healthy relationship.  Other issues are secondary.  In contrast, as an intern seeking a new site, I’m hoping to elicit positive responses.  Finally, retaining my self-respect has been critical in my decision to take a quarter off.  It has required me to put my needs before others (something I’m not good at).  

What Interferes with Your Interpersonal Goals?

imageMany factors exist which can interfere with our interpersonal goals.  Some involve personal insecurity or unmanageable emotions.   However, many of these factors are beyond our control. Its hard to accept the fact that we can’t control anyone or anything beyond ourselves.   We can make a person do something we want.  We may desire self-respect, but that doesn’t mean we will receive it from others.  We may want to preserve a relationship and keep it healthy, however things don’t always go as we might hope.  What follows is a quick list of factors that interfere with our ability to utilize interpersonal skills effectively:

*LACK OF INTERPERSONAL SKILLS:  My mother is from the Philippines & was very strict when it came to dating. It also didn’t help that I was a “SOCIAL LEPER”.  My dating life started in college.  I left home a chronological 18-year-old, but emotionally, I was the same age as my 12-year-old sister.  A Lack of personal skills makes it difficult to achieve our interpersonal goals.  
*WORRI-FUL” THINKING:  I am a worry wart & have a bad habit of ruminating endlessly.   I’ve paid a huge price for the bullying I endured as a child.   I missed out on valuable socialization opportunities and have learned to accept that I will never have a chance to gain what was lost.  I will never feel act as confidently or natural in social situations as others.  Managing my social anxiety is critical to becoming more effective in social situations.  
*EMOTIONS:   Emotions interfere with our ability to utilize interpersonal skills effectively.  Stress, anxiety, anger, & sadness are huge impediments for me.  Finding opportunities to process them.  When emotions are allowed to control my thoughts, behaviors, and actions, the outcome is often quite bleak.  
*OTHER PEOPLE:  You can’t control other people.  You can only control yourself.   Lately, I’ve been spending every spare minute I can, seeking a new internship site.  I have difficulty accepting that I can’t control anyone’s response.  I am also unable to control their impressions of me.  I can put my best foot forward, but their impression is as it is.
*INDECISION:  A lingering uncertainty regarding your interpersonal goals can act as an impediment in your ability to manage vital relationships.  Its for this reason, that its first vital that you examine your interpersonal goals and prioritize them…
*ENVIRONMENT:  In some social environments it is difficult – if not impossible – to act as a skilled person.  Other people may be too powerful or threatened by your utilization of effective interpersonal skills.  Situations like this, require us to determine whether its time to stay or go? 


This acronym that stands for

(be) GENTLE – Avoid attacks, threats, or judgments.
(act) INTERESTED – Listen patiently & without interruption.
VALIDATE (feelings) Acknowledge the feelings, beliefs and thoughts of others.
(use an) EASY MANNER – (i.e. light-hearted, open, accepting).

When is it used?

When your goal is to keep a relationship healthy or positive “GIVE” Skills are important.  For example, I’m hoping to maintain the open communication with my 16-year-old.  As he has entered his teens, I’ve had to learn to alter my parenting style according to his changing needs. He starts college in just under two years.  I provide parameters and pragmatic considerations to keep in mind.  However, I give him some opportunities to make up his own mind and learn his own lessons.  It’s a delicate balance.


This acronym that stands for

DESCRIBE – the current situation so they know what you’re reacting to.  
EXPRESS – your feelings and opinions regarding the situation.  Use I statements.
ASSERT YOURSELF – State what you want.  Be clear about what you’re asking for.
REINFORCE REWARDS/CONSEQUENCES:  Tell the person consequences of doing and/or not doing something. 
(stay) MINDFUL  – Stay focused on your objectives, maintain your position.  
(appear) CONFIDENT – Use a confident tone of voice.  Communicate certainty in your position.
NEGOTIATE – Be willing to give to receive, and ask the person what they need.

When is it used?

When there is a situation where you need ask people to do something, these skills are important.  For example, are you trying to assert your legitimate rights in a situation? Are you trying to get others to take your opinion seriously?  Or are your trying to resolve a conflict? These skills were useful when I decided to communicate to my sons they needed to help out more around the house  They were also utilized when I asked for a reduction in the amount of hours I was spending at my internship site.


This acronym that stands for

(be) FAIR – Be fair to both yourself and the other person.
(no) APOLOGIES – Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary (i.e. sharing opinions, disagreeing, or making requests)
STICK TO YOUR VALUES – Have the integrity to stick to your personal values. State them clearly.
(be) TRUTHFUL – No “lying by omission”  don’t exaggerate or water-down the truth.  

When is this used?

When your goal is to retain your own self-respect and leave a situation feeling good about yourself, these skills are important.  Know what your values and beliefs are regarding a specific situation.  State clearly your conclusions and actions based on these values.  Communicate them clearly.


Here’s a Printable Handout of These DBT Interpersonal Skills…


Mckay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

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