How To Have Uncomfortable Conversations? Leaning Into Tension Using DBT!

How To Have Uncomfortable Conversations? Leaning Into Tension Using DBT!

Have you ever had a situation where there is some tension or friction in an important relationship in your life?

You’re not alone!

It’s common for us to experience difficulties in our daily interactions with others.

Many of us are struggling with tension

In clinical practice, lots of clients explain that they are really struggling with tension or friction with another person and are feeling stuck about what they should do.

Some clients discuss situations like feeling annoyed at a friend or colleague who isn’t communicating effectively, kindly or promptly; or feeling resentful towards their partner with whom they hold disagreements about parenting, finances or intimacy.

Let’s take as an example, Sarah, who is fictitious.

Sarah is a mother of two and works four days a week at an advertising agency. She previously had a sound relationship with her mother Margaret, but tension arose because Margaret disagreed with Sarah’s choice to return to work instead of dedicating herself full-time to caring for her children. Margaret would make well-intended but disapproving comments during family gatherings like, The mother’s place is in the home.

Sarah decided to downplay talking about her career or accomplishments and began to grow frustrated that Margaret was not complimenting her successes at work or parenting abilities.  Sarah yearned for her mother’s support and understanding but hesitated to confront the deep-seated differences in their perspectives.

Sarah chose to focus on her professional success, hoping that over time, her achievements would serve as a testament to her capabilities as a mother and career woman. But, this was unsuccessful and the gap between them began to widen.

The cost of hostile confrontation

Tension and conflict are everywhere, aren’t they?

It’s natural and common to avoid conflict. After all, it’s uncomfortable and painful! But, doing so runs the risk of the situation staying the same or getting worse.

One less common strategy that our clients sometimes (unsuccessfully) use is hostile confrontation.

This can lead to a damaged relationship if it leads to an argument.

We sometimes attack the person, not the problem. This makes people feel defensive and hostile.

The strategy that we advocate for is to safely and carefully address the tension by having an uncomfortable conversation.

How to have a successful uncomfortable conversation

When having uncomfortable conversations, it’s important to understand and use interpersonal skills.

Marshall Linehan is the creator of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and describes interpersonal skills as:

  1. How to get what you want;
  2. While maintaining the relationship; and 
  3. While maintaining your own self-respect.

Sounds pretty good right? And the good news is, these skills can be taught.

The DEAR MAN skill

One such skill is called The DEAR MAN Skill (we note the gender reference in this acronym, a product of its development in the 1970s).

DEAR MAN is an acronym that helps us to get our needs met and develop healthy relationships with others.

  • Describe the situation and stick to the facts.
  • Express your feelings about the situation without assuming the other person already knows.
  • Assert yourself by asking specifically for what you want, or clearly saying “No.”
  • Reinforce by explaining the positive effect of getting what you want or need.
  • Keep mindful of your goals without getting distracted or off topic.
  • Appear composed in your tone of voice and physical manner.
  • Be willing to negotiate and focus on what will work.

Applying DEAR MAN to real life

Here’s a way that Sarah could use these skills to have an uncomfortable conversation.

Hey Mum, I’ve noticed that our relationship has become a bit strained lately and that you’ve made some comments about my choice to continue working and be a mother [Describe]. I want you to know that I value our relationship, and it’s important for me to share my perspective without any misunderstandings. I feel hurt when you imply that I’m making a wrong or unhelpful decision to return to work rather than staying at home [Express]. Please don’t make those kinds of comments [Assert]. If you acknowledge and support my decision, this will help me feel more loved and validated [Reinforce]. I really like to focus on finding common ground that respects both our perspectives and I think this will lead to a healthier dynamic between us [Mindful]. I hope this will benefit our relationship in the long run, and I’m open to finding solutions that work for both of us [Negotiate].

Having uncomfortable conversations can be deeply distressing and many clients find it beneficial to discuss or rehearse these with their therapist.

This might be helpful for you too!

It can take a long time before a person is ready to have a difficult conversation, and that’s OK.

Often it’s helpful to find your own voice and say these things in ways that are natural and comfortable for you.

Mastering the art

Mastering the art of uncomfortable conversations empowers you to express yourself assertively, strengthen relationships, and maintain self-respect.

By embracing this, you can transform conflicts into opportunities for understanding, fostering healthier connections in all aspects of your life.

Please reach out and book an appointment with one of our other psychologists at Attuned Psychology, to get started on developing these skills.

Attuned Psychology Team

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