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The Beginners Guide to DBT with ADHD, Part 5: Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills…Uh, Part 1

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This Series on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has evolved since I began writing it over a month ago. Originally, this was supposed to be four parts, and then it turned into five, and when I began working on writing about interpersonal effectiveness skills, I realized that this is an area where a lot of ADHDers struggle. So, I wrote out the whole thing, and it ended up being so long that I had to divide it up further. So here we are with Part 1 of Part 5 of The Beginners Guide to DBT with ADHD.

For previous parts of this series click the links below. Part 1

For those of us with ADHD, building and maintaining relationships is hard. After all, relationships require attention, and that is something we have a hard time controlling. Many times, we will be hyper-focused on the person at the beginning of the relationship, but once the novelty fades, our focus follows suit. If you want to keep a healthy relationship with the person you're with, whether it's a partner, friend, or coworker, it's important to pay attention to the other person's feelings and behaviors and then monitor the process between the both of you.

Paying attention means staying in the here and now, not thinking about what you want to say next or focusing on some distant memory from the past (or anything else for that matter). Not paying attention and being mindful of our relationships (including our relationship with ourselves) can prevent us from reaching our objectives, hinder our relationships, and harm our self-respect. DBT’s (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) interpersonal effectiveness skills help us improve our effectiveness in these areas using various techniques to help us improve our communication and mindful observation skills. But before we can know how to communicate, we have to know what it is that we want from the relationship.

Clarifying: What Do You Want?

Every single person we interact with can be considered a relationship. Just because it isn’t deep and meaningful doesn’t make it any less relevant. I didn’t even really consider this until I learned about the skills you are reading about right now. But with each person we interact with on a daily basis, we can ask ourselves, “What is it I’m looking for in this interaction?” Maybe it’s a one-time thing, such as talking to a salesperson or needing to get a co-worker to send you a report. Or maybe you are wanting to strengthen your relationship in some way and want to tell the person how you feel. It may be that someone said something about you or a friend, and you feel the need to defend yourself. Whatever it is, in every single interaction with another person, we have something to gain or lose. We just have to decide what it is that we want. Our effectiveness in navigating these interactions will determine the outcomes. It is for this reason that I consider these skills the “DBT How to Win Friends and Influence People Skills."

Objectives Effectiveness Skills: DEAR MAN

People with ADHD tend to be people-pleasers. Because we are often subject to rejection sensitivity, we have a hard time asking for things we want or need. Oftentimes, we also become so focused on helping everyone else that we fall short of our own goals and objectives. Objective effectiveness refers to attaining your objective or goal in a given situation.

The most important question to ask yourself is, "What do I want to happen or change as a result of this interaction?" This is what you want the other person to do or have happen by the end of the conversation. It could be what the other person needs to do, stop doing, agree to, understand, or commit to. It's important that the goal be as clear as possible. The clearer you are about what you want, the easier it will be to use objective effectiveness skills, and the clearer it will be whether or not you achieve your goal.

For this, we can use the acronym DEAR MAN to help us remember the steps we need to take to be more effective in getting what we want out of a situation.

Describe: Describe the current situation (if necessary). Just stick to the facts. Be sure not to exaggerate, embellish, or make assumptions. This can be hard when our brains are going a thousand miles per hour, but this is one of the most important steps as it is how you lay the cards on the table.

Express: Express your feelings and opinions clearly about the situation. Don't just assume that the other person knows what you're feeling. “When you come home so late, I start worrying about you.” Use phrases such as “I want” instead of “You should" or “I don’t want” instead of “You shouldn’t.”

Assert: Assert yourself by asking for what you want or by saying no clearly. Do not assume that others will figure out what you want. This also means to say “no” clearly if you need to. Remember that others cannot read your mind. Make sure to use “I” statements, such as “I need x” or “I would like y.”

Reinforce: Reinforce (reward) the person ahead of time by explaining the advantages of getting what you want or need. If you need to, explain what will happen if you don't get what you want or need. “I would be so relieved, and it would be a lot easier to live with if you did that.” Remember to also reward desired behavior after the fact. (Stay)

Mindful: Stay mindful and keep your focus on your goals. Maintain your position. Don’t be distracted. Don’t get off the topic. “Broken record”: Keep asking, saying no, or expressing your opinion over and over. Just keep replaying the same thing again and again. Ignore attacks: If another person attacks, threatens, or tries to change the subject, ignore the threats, comments, or attempts to divert you. Do not respond to attacks. Ignore distractions. Just keep making your point. “I would still like a call.”

Appear confident: Appear confident by using a confident voice tone and physical manner; make good eye contact. No stammering, whispering, staring at the floor, or retreating No saying, “I’m not sure,” etc. (Note that the skill is “appear confident,” not “be confident.” Note that it is perfectly reasonable to be nervous or scared during a difficult conversation; however, acting nervous or scared will interfere with effectiveness.)

Negotiate. Negotiate and be willing to give in order to receive. Give and ask for different ways to solve the problem. Reduce your request. Say "no," but offer to do something else or find a different way to solve the problem. Focus on what will work. For example, “How about if you text me when you think you might be late?” Turn the tables: Turn the problem over to the other person by asking them for other solutions. “What do you think we should do?”

Practice Makes Perfect

Remember that nothing worth doing is truly easy. We have to practice these skills to hone them and get good at them. Thankfully, there are a lot of great ways to practice this skill. For example, you could go to the store and ask a salesperson to help you find something. You could also ask a classmate to do a favor for you, such as letting you take a look at their class notes.

Since learning this skill, it has actually helped me in situations where I would not otherwise be able to collect my thoughts properly. I have found that simply remembering DEAR MAN when I was in a heated discussion has given me the structure I need to clearly state what it is that I need and why. This is something that many of us with ADHD struggle with due to our working memory issues. Because of this, I like to keep this one in the back of my mind because it really does help boost my confidence and help me communicate effectively with people.

Relationship Effectiveness Skills: GIVE

How many times have you gotten into an argument with someone you care about and been so insistent on “winning” the argument that you said something hurtful and inadvertently damaged the relationship? How did you feel afterward? I can say that I have absolutely done this more times than I can even remember and felt like absolute crap afterward. There are times when we want something, but maintaining the relationship is more important in the grand scheme of things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t have what we want. It just means that we need to change the way we go about asking for it. This is where the “relationship effectiveness skills” come in. For this skill, we can use the acronym GIVE.

Gentle: Use a gentle approach. This means being kind and respectful. People tend to respond better to kindness than to aggressiveness. This means no attacks, no threats, no judging, and no disrespect. Attacks and threats don’t work very well. Sure, you might get lucky and get them to do what you want when you are around. But they are going to resent you, and as soon as you aren’t around, they will most likely stop doing it. The gentle approach can help us avoid confrontational or defensive reactions that are so common for those of us with ADHD.

Interested: Showing interest in the other person’s point of view works wonders to win the other person’s respect. Don’t interrupt or try to talk over the other person. This can be especially hard for those of us with ADHD, as we worry about forgetting what we are thinking about. This is why it's a good idea to carry a small notebook with you so you can jot down a word or hint and return to your thoughts later. Remember the mindfulness “observe skill.” You can’t observe what the person is thinking or feeling, so if you are unsure about something they say, you should gently ask a question about it. As hard as it may be to stay focused, it’s important to remember that the goal here is to improve the relationship and for the other person to have a positive experience interacting with you.

Validate: Be sure to validate the other person's thoughts, feelings, and/or opinions by telling the person that they are understandable, given his or her past or current situation. Keep in mind that this does not necessarily mean that we agree with them. We can still express that, although their feelings, thoughts, and actions are understandable, we still don’t agree with them. Try to be aware of your body language, voice tone, and facial expressions while you are validating them, as these can be a form of invalidation in and of themselves.

Easy Manner: Using an easy manner means trying to keep it lighthearted. Throw in a little humor, smile, and ease the other person along. Sometimes, in order to get what we want and maintain the relationship, we need to be political about it. Keeping a light tone to the conversation will get people to like giving you what you want. They don’t want to be bullied, forced, or made to feel guilty about things.

Self-Respect Effectiveness Skills: FAST

People with ADHD often have problems with being impulsive, not being organized, and being easily distracted. This makes it hard for them to keep their self-respect and confidence. Self-respect effectiveness skills can be especially helpful for those of us with ADHD in managing our symptoms and improving our daily lives. We can remember these skills using the acronym FAST

Fairness: Being fair can help us understand and accept ourselves better, which can make us feel less shame and self-criticism. By treating ourselves and others with fairness and equality, we can improve our relationships and increase their sense of self-worth.

Assertiveness: Practicing assertiveness can help us better express our needs, feelings, and opinions in a respectful and non-aggressive way, reducing conflicts and improving our relationships.

Self-care: Self-care is essential for us, and yet it is something that most people with ADHD forget most often. It can help us manage our symptoms and reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm. By taking care of our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, we can improve our overall quality of life. Doing basic things like drinking water, taking breaks throughout the day, and practicing mindfulness are some of the easiest self-care actions we can do. It’s just a matter of reminding ourselves to do it.

Trustworthiness: Being trustworthy is critical for those of us with ADHD, as it can help us build and maintain positive relationships and reduce feelings of guilt and shame. We can boost our self-respect and confidence by being reliable, honest, and consistent in what we say and do. This is another one that can be really hard with ADHD due to rejection sensitivity and shame. These cause our brains to react so quickly that we often don’t have time to filter them or decide if lying to avoid shame is really the best thing for us. However, the more we are honest with ourselves, the more we will be honest with everyone else. Remember, “What story are you telling yourself?”

Incorporating self-respect effectiveness skills into daily routines can be a powerful tool for those of us with ADHD to manage our symptoms and improve our daily lives by building up our self-respect and confidence. Focusing on fairness, assertiveness, self-care, and trustworthiness can help us feel better about ourselves and make us healthier overall which will also enhance our relationships with others.

In the next section, we will discuss techniques for getting out of our own heads and being mindful of others in order to be more effective at building relationships.


If you find this article interesting and want to learn more or have a comment, feel free to leave a comment below. Or better yet, come talk to us about it on our Discord server! We have a lot of great people who love to talk about ADHD, neurodivergence, nerdy stuff, and all the other things. We've also got a lot of links to resources for further reading and personal growth.

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