Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills: How to Manage Difficult Interactions Using DBT

managing difficult interactions

Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills: How to Manage Difficult Interactions Using DBT

At different points in our lives, there will be times when we have to deal with difficult people. Whether it’s a coworker who tends to have a negative attitude, a client or boss who’s difficult to satisfy,  or a family member who seems to know all of the right buttons to push, dealing with difficult people can be incredibly stressful.  It is important to know how to manage these interactions effectively in order to maintain our personal boundaries and promote healthy relationship styles.  Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) provides a framework for understanding and managing difficult interactions.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, created by Marsha Linehan, focuses on helping people learn how to manage their emotions, deal with difficult situations and relationships, and improve their overall quality of life.  One of the key areas that DBT focuses on is interpersonal effectiveness. This involves learning how to manage difficult conversations and interactions, in a way that preserves relationships and achieves one’s goals.  Whether it’s with a boss, a coworker, a friend, or a family member, we all need to know how to manage these interactions effectively.  Difficult interactions can be challenging and overwhelming, but with the right tools, they can be managed effectively. 


In the Interpersonal Effectiveness Handout 5A from the DBT skills manual, there are two main reasons one might struggle with maintaining appropriate boundaries or getting a need met during an interaction with another person.  The first reason may be that the other person’s behavior may be interfering and attention may need to be redirected towards that person’s behavior.  The second reason may be that the other person is highly skillful in denying your requests or ignoring your statements regarding what you are comfortable or not comfortable doing.


The first step is to assess the situation and determine whether or not the “broken record” and and ignoring strategies outlined in the DEAR MAN skill are providing the necessary boundaries for the interaction.  If not, then it is suggested that one comment on what is happening in the moment without any judgment or criticism.  For example, in an interaction where you are frustrated by someone continuously asking you to do something for them, you can say “I noticed that even though I have already stated I am not willing to do it at this time, I am still hearing requests.”


At this point, it also may be helpful to identify how you are feeling about the interaction in the moment.  It is appropriate and important for you to share how the conversation may be impacting you internally.  Based on the interaction aforementioned, you might highlight that you are feeling uncomfortable or frustrated or discouraged by the continuous requests despite already sharing that you are unable to fulfill the requests.


After sharing your feelings and thoughts about the interactions in a non-critical way, you might then suggest what it is you wish for in the situation by offering an alternative.  You might suggest pausing the conversation, taking a break or determining a better place and time to reconvene once both individuals have had time and space to reflect on what has developed.  It is okay to acknowledge when an interaction is spiraling and there is a need for containment.

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