“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James
No matter how skilled we are in navigating our social worlds, obstacles or blocks to interpersonal effectiveness are bound to arise from time to time. When we are temporarily experiencing stress in a relationship with a friend, coworker, parent, or partner, it is helpful to remind ourselves to step back from the situation and mindfully observe what is happening, without judgment. Half of the battle of overcoming obstacles in relationships lies in accurately identifying the real problem. This involves taking an honest look in the mirror and asking ourselves what we have done or are doing to contribute to the problem. Remember: we are half of every relationship and must take active responsibility for that which we can control.
We all acquire our basic blueprints for how to relate to other people from the patterns that we witnessed in our own families. As we all know, these are not always the healthiest or most effective patterns. We learn to model our own behavior as children, adolescents, and adults upon this basic blueprint, gradually enacting what we have seen in our own families with other people – even when it is unhealthy. When family members dealt with conflict through unhealthy techniques, we internalize these strategies and replay them with others as adults.
Common Obstacles to Interpersonal Effectiveness
These patterns learned in childhood and adolescence do not have to continue as adults. We are now capable of observing these patterns for what they are – relics of the past. We can then choose new healthy ways of relating to others. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007) identifies eight common obstacles, or aversive strategies, to using effective interpersonal skills.
This tells the other person that their needs really don’t matter all that much or are invalid in some way. Example: “You’ve been sitting around all day – what makes you expect me to clean the house?”
When we do this, we are so afraid of being abandoned ourselves that we preemptively abandon the other person or emotionally withdraw in some way. Example: “Just do what you want – I’m leaving.”
This happens when we are so angry inside that all we can think of to alleviate our own pain is to hurt the other person or make them miserable. Example: “If you don’t do what I want, I will leave.”
When we blame, the problem becomes the other person’s fault – we absolve ourselves of responsibility. We tells ourselves that since they caused it, they should fix it. Example: “We’re only having this problem in the first place because of you.”
This is an attack on the other person that makes them feel foolish, wrong, or defective in some way. Example: “Why did you want to come here in the first place? I knew this would be a bad idea.”
When we are blocked from interpersonal effectiveness in this way, we are sending the message to the other person that they are a failure or that their needs are “wrong” in some way. Example: “If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t be asking me that.”
This strategy diverts attention away from the person’s feelings and needs, back toward ourselves and what we need. Example: “I don’t care what you want to do, right now I’m hurt.”
(8) Taking away
This results in withdrawal of some type of support or reinforcement as punishment for something that the other person said, did, or wanted. Example: “I’m really not in the mood to go the movies anymore.” (After the other person was unwilling or unable to do something)
As you read through these common obstacles to interpersonal effectiveness, what patterns do you notice yourself engaging in? Do you tend to do some things more than others? As always, we are trying to identify personal patterns and tendencies in our own behavior so that we may work towards choosing newer and healthier ways of relating to others in the future.
Just because you are working towards blaming less or guilt-tripping less, there will likely still be times when old patterns rear their ugly heads. What makes the difference is how you handle it when it does. Will you choose to ignore it and brush it off or will you choose to accept responsibility for your actions and admit to yourself that there was a better way of handling the situation? Each encounter that we have is a new opportunity to engage with others in a loving mindful way that is free of our old patterns.
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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: Argument by Benson Kua / CC BY-SA 2.0