Taming Interpersonal Chaos

We’re going to revisit Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) this week and poke into Interpersonal Effectiveness, Goals of Interpersonal Effectiveness to be more specific. DBT was originally designed for folks who struggle with interpersonal effectiveness – a term used to describe a set of skills that are important in managing and maintaining healthy friendships, work relationships, and romantic relationships. The idea being that interpersonal chaos can be the result and/or the cause of emotional chaos. So, it makes sense that a significant portion of the treatment involves improving interpersonal effectiveness.

Goals of Interpersonal Effectiveness involves enhancing a person’s ability to identify what the goals of a specific interaction are and of these goals, which is the priority. There are three goals to consider when approaching a situation –

(1) Objective Effectivenessthis involves putting yourself in the most optimal position to get what you want out of a situation which may include:
-Obtaining your legitimate rights
-Getting another person to do something
-Refusing an unwanted request
-Resolving an interpersonal conflict
-Getting your opinion or point of view taken seriously.

Efficacy in obtaining objectives starts with the following questions:
What specific results or changes do I want from the situation?
What do I have to do to get these results?

(2) Relationship Effectivenessthis involves maintaining or keeping a relationship worth keeping and may include:
-Acting in a way that the other person keeps liking and respecting you
-Balancing the immediate goals with the good of the long term relationship

Efficacy in maintaining the Relationship starts with the following questions:
How do I want the other person to feel about me after the relationship is over?
What do I have to do to get or keep this relationship?

(3) Self-Respect Effectiveness -this involves acting in a way that allows you to view yourself in a positive light and may include:
-Respecting your own values and beliefs, acting in a way that makes you feel moral or ethical.
-Acting in a way that makes you feel capable and effective

Efficacy in keeping Self Respect starts with the following questions:
How do I want to feel about myself after this interaction is over?
What do I have to do to feel that way about myself?


The first thing you may notice is the very deliberate nature by which DBT approaches interactions; the reason for this is that many folks are not in the habit of even thinking about interactions in this way. This is usually fine except when it matters, and for some folks – due to lack of skill – it can matter often.

These goals are not inherently equal; their importance depends on context. For example-

Peter’s boss has asked him to stay late at work again. He is angry because he only asks Peter and never asks any of his coworkers. Peter needs this job, the demand for what he does is very low and the company he works for is in the process of discussing cut backs.

This situation is a bit tricky. If Peter focuses on the objective without being mindful of the relationship he may come across as too strong and possibly insubordinate. If Peter only focuses on pleasing his boss (relationship), his boss may continue to believe that Peter is not bothered by his requests to stay late. If Peter only focuses on self-respect he may come across as someone who takes things too personally. Peter has to determine what goals are most important – which ones are priorities.

We begin by defining each goal.  For Peter, it may sort of look like this-

Objective – To influence my boss to rely on me less to stay later, to not ask me as much.
Relationship- I want my boss to feel that I am respectful and a valued employee who is dedicated to his job.
Self Respect- I don’t want to feel like a welcome mat and I don’t want to appear entitled.

Then we would want to prioritize these goals.  In this case, given Peter’s lack of options and the shaky employment situation at work, it would probably be in Peter’s best interest to prioritize the goals in this manner –

(1) Relationship– Due to the need Peter has to keep his job which in turn may require a good relationship with his boss.
(2) Objective– Because Peter is angry about the situation and he is not clear as to whether his Boss realizes what he is doing or his thinking in making Peter stay late.
(3) Self Respect– Self Respect should still be attended to but is on the back burner due to the importance of the other two goals. Peter may need to sacrifice a little self-respect in the interest of the other two goals.

Not balancing goals can also create resentments in relationships. A few months back I observed my daughter being blatantly bullied by an older boy at her school playground. She fought back pretty well and was effective at standing him down, but I was pissed. I asked my daughter to come with me to her principal’s office to discuss what had happened and my daughter refused – “I already took care of it, daddy”. I insisted that she come, thinking I was promoting/modeling assertiveness. My daughter was more upset with me for two days than she was about what the boy had done to her.

In that situation, I prioritized the objective (making the principal aware of what happened and pushing my daughter to assert herself) while neglecting the relationship goal of making my daughter believe that I had confidence in her ability to solve the problem independently.

This skill is one of many within the interpersonal effectiveness module. As a stand alone, it can be effective in getting one to think before reacting. When you’re faced with a potentially difficult interaction, consider identifying goals and prioritizing them before winging it. You may notice a change in your approach and success.

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