Stay at Home orders mean family members, roommates, and significant others are spending significantly more time together. This increase in contact with each other is certainly going to test relationships. I saw a tweet today that said “my wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called “Why are You Doing it that Way?” and there are no winners.” Can anyone else relate? Believe it or not, these quarrels can be avoided.
Most arguments in relationships are the result of unspoken needs. Some common needs, when quarantined together, may include time alone, space, connection, quiet, limited pandemic talk, more positive thinking, help with household chores, and maintaining routines. Most of us did not receive formal instruction on communicating our needs. Others may hold unhealthy beliefs, such as, “Expressing my need is selfish,” “I’m being annoying,” or “I don’t want to be needy or high maintenance.” As a result, we bottle up our feelings until we reach our boiling point and the spill-over is never pretty.
One of the fundamental DBT skills for interpersonal effectiveness is DEAR MAN: Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce while remaining Mindful, Appearing confident, and Negotiating as needed. DEAR MAN can be used to make requests and express needs in a respectful and assertive way that also supports the relationship.
Let’s take a close look at each of these steps:
Describe the situation in simple terms stating only the facts. Many of us skip this part because we assume the other person should be aware of the situation and our feelings. More often than not, people can not read minds. Instead, assume the other person is not aware of the situation and does not understand how you feel. By describing it, you’re making sure they understand the circumstances.
Express how you feel using “I” statements. When we use “I” statements, we are taking responsibility for our feelings and thoughts instead of blaming the other person. “You-statements” imply the other person is responsible for something and sounds a lot like blaming, accusing, and assuming. The result: the other person reacts defensively instead of constructively. Here is an easy formula to use if you are new to “I” statements: I feel/think_______ when because______.
Assert by expressing your need or saying no to a request. Assertiveness is the middle path between passive and aggressive communication. Don’t allude to what you need. Do be clear and concise. Don’t make demands or give ultimatums. Do directly ask for what you need and make a request.
Reinforce by ensuring the other person understands how the request benefits them and the relationship. Reinforcing could look like explaining the positive benefits of getting what you need, rewarding the other person for responding positively to the request, or simply thanking the other person. Reciprocity is vital in relationships, so make sure the other person is getting something out of your request too.
Before we move on, let’s work through a problem with our first four steps. I will use the example of needing less pandemic talk. Following the four steps, I might say something like “I know these are uncertain times. The numbers of positive cases are rising and orders are changing constantly. I feel overwhelmed when we talk about the pandemic so much because I start obsessing and have trouble getting off the hamster wheel in my mind. I would like for us to limit how often we talk about the pandemic. I think we would both feel more positive and hopeful if we spent less time talking about it.” Can you spot each step?
Moving on to our last three steps:
Be Mindful. Stay focused on the conversation and limit distractions.If the other person does become defensive or gets sidetracked, do your best to remain composed, focused, and get the conversation back on course.
Appear confident. If your words and body language do not match, the other person may feel confused and may not take your request seriously. Experts say how we communicate is often more important than what we communicate. Stand or sit up straight, shoulders back, keep your head up, make direct eye contact, and speak clearly.
Negotiate. To get what you want, you might need to alter your request and compromise. Sometimes we need to give to get in relationships. Have a conversation and find a solution that works for you AND the other person.
If I were to apply these steps to the previous example, I might practice mindfulness by choosing a time to talk when the other person is less distracted and there are fewer opportunities for interruptions. If they react defensively, I would mindfully get the conversation back on track “I understand talking about the pandemic helps you cope with stress. I feel more stressed when we talk too much about it.” Now I can transition directly to negotiating, “Maybe we could set aside intentional time for more positive talk like what we are grateful for and what we look forward to, avoiding any pandemic talk. That way we both get what we need. What do you think?” Throughout the conversation, I will make direct eye contact, stay calm, and maintain a confident body posture.
Healthy communication is essential to maintaining relationships. It can help you quarrel less and get more of what you need. Following the DEAR MAN steps will help you avoid the many pitfalls and breakdowns in communication. Hopefully, it will also help you feel more confident in expressing your needs, making requests, and saying no.
Emily Whitehouse is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor based in our Jupiter office. She is passionate about helping clients learn new proactive ways to respond to life’s many obstacles. The modalities she has found to be most effective include EMDR, DBT, CBT, and family systems work. Emily will combine advanced training with her natural strengths of empathy and tenacity to empower clients to find significance in their story and create a more fulfilling life.