“Man is a knot into which relationships are tied.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Relationships are inextricably linked to human life. We depend on one another for connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose. While developing one’s core sense of identity and self-sufficiency are invaluable to our development into strong dynamic adults, we are not separate from our connections with others. A great deal of happiness and success in life can result from identifying and strengthening one’s basic interpersonal skills.
Ideally, these basic social skills are learned in childhood through appropriate parental modeling of social behaviors and interactions with peers, but this doesn’t always happen. Just because your childhood or adolescence was less than ideal (or even if it was terrible), you have the choice now, as an adult, to learn to do things differently.
Effective Interpersonal Skills to Improve Relationships
The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007) identifies six crucial interpersonal skills to learn and practice in order to change the way that your relationships feel.
(1) Knowing what you want
What are some typical ways that you “know” what you want in your relationships with others? It may be sensed as a deep yearning or even a mild discomfort with an interaction. The important idea here is to be aware and pay attention to what these feelings are telling you about your deeper interpersonal needs and desires.
(2) Asking for what you want – in a way that protects the relationship
Do you notice that your interactions with others go more smoothly and manifest more positive outcomes when you ask for what you want in a direct, yet non-attacking, manner? It can be difficult to directly state our needs or wants to others for fear of rejection or simply not being capable of being assertive. The DBT mnemonic device, D-E-A-R M-A-N, is an incredibly useful tool for remembering some of these basic assertiveness skills.
(3) Negotiating conflicting wants
Part of being able to skillfully negotiate in relationships begins with a willingness to let go of the need for there to be “winners” or “losers.” If you are excessively focused on being “right,” then you may just end up being “right” – all alone. Negotiation means being willing to compromise with the other person so that you each get some of your needs met. It helps to remember that it is unrealistic to get our ideal outcomes each and every time.
(4) Getting information
An important piece of the foundation of basic interpersonal skills involves being able to ascertain exactly what it is that the other person needs, wishes for, fears, etc. We can be blocked from getting this key information when we: (1) believe that we already know what it is that the other person wants; (2) project our own needs, wishes, or fears onto the other person; (3) excessively worry that attempting to gather pertinent information will be experienced as prying; (4) are paralyzed by fear of hearing the “worst possible response” from the other person; and (5) are unsure of exactly what information is important to gather.
(5) Saying no – in a way that protects the relationship
There are three basic ways of saying “no” to another person: (1) in a flat powerless manner that gets overpowered; (2) in a hard, tough, and aggressive style that pushes people away; or (3) in an assertive way that validates the other person’s needs and wants while also setting clear boundaries about what you will and will not do. The first two styles of saying “no” chip away at the foundation of relationships by making one person feel controlled and resentful.
(6) Acting according to your values
When we act in passive or aggressive ways in our relationships with others, we are denying both the other person and ourselves the possibility of a meaningful connection. The first step to acting in accordance with your values in relationships is identifying what those values are. Ask yourself what kinds of relationships you really want to have with others. What is your idea of a trusting loving relationship or a meaningful friendship? In order to begin to build the kind of relationships we truly desire, we must first know what we would like those relationships to look like. Try beginning new relationships or infusing existing relationships with your identified values. Communicate to others what it is that you value in another person and be prepared to act according to those values in your relationships.
Dr. Christine Meinecke, psychologist and author, explains that “becoming a self-responsible partner involves developing new interpersonal skills by becoming an expert user of your own brain.” She likens this process to learning how to inhibit negative emotions or “train your dragon.” An important aspect of learning how to identify the most basic of interpersonal skills begins with feeling a sense of control, ownership, and trust over yourself.
How can begin the lifelong process of improving your relationships with others through being mindful of these basic interpersonal skills? A good place to begin may be to simply focus on employing one new interpersonal skill in your life today. How can you change just one interaction for the better?
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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Meinecke, C. (2010, May 2). How to train your dragon [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/everybody-marries-the-wrong-person/201005/how-train-your-dragon
Featured image: Kayak sobre las nubes / Sailing in the sky by Davichi / CC BY 2.0