Once you have grasp of the DEAR MAN skill, you might find yourself getting stuck when you try to use it in difficult interactions. Maybe the other person pushes back, tries to change the subject, or refuses to engage fairly.
While we can’t force anyone to do anything, we can continue to use our skills to stay as effective as possible during heated moments.
What do you do when you are in the middle of an interaction and it’s not going well?
- If you anticipate an interaction may be difficult, write out your DEAR MAN first to help you organize your thoughts and get clear on what you want and need
- Don’t forget about your other skills during the interaction, especially Distress Tolerance skills
- The STOP skill may be very helpful
- Use the Observe skill to notice what is happening between you and the other person and what is happening inside of you
- Use the Describe skill to comment on what’s happening between you and the other person without assigning motive
- Watch for a feeling of urgency that things have to be figured out immediately
- Slow down and trust that you can come back to the conversation at a later time
DBT Skills Discussed
- DEAR MAN
- Introduction to Distress Tolerance & the STOP skill
- The “What” Skills of Mindfulness
- The “How” Skills of Mindfulness
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Below is an edited version of the transcript of this podcast episode.
Applying DEAR MAN in Difficult Interactions
Welcome to The Skillful Podcast where we explore DBT and DBT skills to help you reduce emotional suffering, improve your relationships, and become more present in your life.
DEAR MAN is a skill that we come back to over and over. We’ve explained it multiple times on the podcast, what the acronym stands for, as well as when and how to use it. We have not spent as much time on how to use this skill when you’re in the middle of an interaction with someone else and it’s getting heated and not going well. We can use DEAR MAN skills to address that.
What does DEAR MAN stand for?
Briefly describe the situation you want to talk about. When you do this, you want to stay with the facts and stay away from judgmental language. If you use judgmental language or a judgmental tone of voice, the other person might be put on the defensive right away.
Describe briefly the situation to kind of orient the person to let them know that you want to talk about this thing. If you’re describing facts, like “You promised that you would empty the dishwasher today,” and the other person says, “Actually, that’s not the promise or the agreement,” that can be a signal to you that the conversation may not be well received, because the facts are in dispute. Describing the facts gives you some good information right off the bat in an interaction with another person.
This is your opportunity to express your feelings and your opinions. After you factually describe what it is you want to talk about, express what you feel about those facts. This could look like “I feel angry,” or “I feel hurt,” or “I feel worried,” about the facts that you described.
Much like when you describe, you want to stay away from anything that is judgmental as you express your feelings. So just saying “You didn’t empty the dishwasher, and I feel frustrated,” instead of “You didn’t empty the dishwasher, and I feel sick and tired of how you never do what you say you’re going to do.” Really make an effort in all aspects of DEAR MAN to be clear and factual and use less judgmental or inflammatory language.
It’s important to think ahead of time, whenever you can, about the conversation and write it out, especially if you’re newer to doing DEAR MAN or if you haven’t done one in a while. It can be so easy, especially if your distress level is high, and you’re less familiar with the skill to go right into something like “I’m sick and tired of you not doing what you say you’re gonna do,” and then that conversation will probably not go very well.
The A in the DEAR MAN comes after you express your feelings or opinions. You can also think about the “A” as the ask in the interaction you’re having. You want to ask for something or say no very clearly. You don’t want to assume that the other person will just get it.
If your roommate says “Can we close the window? There’s some loud noise outside.” And you say, “You know, I’m feeling kind of hot.” You may think that expressing your feeling that you’re actually kind of hot means that you are asking, actually, can we keep the window open?
This is so common, where the action in your request gets lost. You say what you are feeling, you say your opinion, and then you’re just hoping the other person is gonna give it. Sometimes they do, but a lot of times, you need to say directly, “Actually I’m feeling kind of hot, could we keep the window open for a little bit longer?” or something like that. You don’t want to assume that the other person just knows what you want when you express your feelings.
Asserting doesn’t mean demanding
When you ask, you also want to try to stay away from demanding, which some of us can fall into. When you come in with your asks in a more demanding way, this is potentially damaging to relationships. It can feel controlling or hostile. You want to ask and be willing to take a no or be open to negotiation, if possible, or even be open to potentially having the conversation at a later time. Not everyone struggles with this asking versus demanding, but if you do, listeners, you probably know who you are, where you’ve gotten feedback on this before.
Asserting really is the key to DEAR MAN because it is where you ask for what you want specifically, or you say no specifically to what you’re saying no to. Part of what makes DEAR MAN work is you’re being very direct. For some listeners, your struggle is you’re too direct. And for other listeners, your struggle tends to be you’re not direct enough. This helps all of us find something in the middle, where we can be direct, and say “This is what I want,” but not in an overly demanding way or an overly passive way.
The R in the DEAR is where you reinforce what’s in it for the other person to give you what you’re asking for. This is the little extra in the request that can make it more likely for you to get what you’re desiring. By thinking ahead and saying to the other person, “Here’s what’s in it for you to give me what I want,” you’re reinforcing what it is that will be beneficial to both of you.
Here’s an example: “I will be less frustrated if you empty the dishwasher when you say that you will and we can have more fun together.” Reinforcing is about thinking ahead of time what might be valuable to this other person, and what will make them a little bit more open to giving you what you’re asking for.
With DEAR MAN, it’s very important to prepare ahead of time to be clear about what it is that you want to talk about and what specifically you are feeling that you want to express. What is your actual assertion specifically, and what’s in it for the other person that you want to reinforce ahead of time? We’re going to talk today about when that doesn’t go well. If you’re already in a very contentious situation, then you can use some of the DEAR MAN skills to be more effective in the moment. But in general, with a DEAR MAN, you want to think ahead of time “What is it that I want to ask for?”
Be specific when using DEAR MAN
Get specific about the describe, the express, the assert, and the reinforce when using DEAR MAN. This also can help you get into Wise Mind if you’re struggling to be in that more centered, grounded place within yourself. It gives you some time to think through the facts. What do you actually want to ask for? How do you feel about this? What’s in it for the other person? What’s their perspective? What might motivate them to want to give you what you’re asking for? If you can’t come up with anything, could you offer to do something for the other person if they do the same for you?
We want to be mindful to express appreciation if someone agrees to do something that you’re asking them to do. Carrots are more effective than sticks, meaning, punishment is less effective than positive reinforcement.
There’s a place for this punishment kind of approach dialectically. Sometimes you might say “No, this will not be good for you. And the benefit is you will not like what happens if you don’t agree, agree with what I’m asking.” At the same time, in general, most of us respond more to positive reinforcements.
We’ve covered the DEAR part of DEAR MAN, now let’s dig into the MAN.
DEAR is really like the script you write whereas the MAN is more about how you do those things.
When you stay mindful, that means that you’re staying on course and staying with the original thread of the conversation as much as possible. You can think of the technique called Broken Record so you don’t feel pressure to keep thinking of something new to say. Your tone of voice and the way you say things actually really matters.
So if you keep saying the same thing over and over again, “I’d really like you to empty the dishwasher on your days to do that,” you want to say it kindly and keep your voice kind of mellow. The strength is not in being harsh in the way that you’re saying it. The strength is in maintaining your position.
The other portion of being mindful is ignoring attacks.
This can be very challenging to do because it is so compelling to respond if you get attacked in some way. If the other person’s like, “Well, you didn’t do XYZ,” or “What about this thing,” or “Actually, I’m really upset about this thing that happened three months ago,” you are likely going to want to defend yourself. If you do that, you’re going to lose the thread of where you started the original conversation. That’s when you wind up in some kind of argument, or with both of you feeling frustrated, and walking away from a conversation feeling like “What just happened, this was about the dishwasher, and then it became about all these other things.”
Something that can be helpful with ignoring attacks or diversions that come your way can be to acknowledge and validate it, if it is valid. If the other person says “You didn’t take out the garbage when you said you were going to.” You can respond with “Yeah, you’re right, I didn’t do that. And we definitely can talk about this, but can we stay with the dishwasher issue for now?” That can sometimes appease the other person because you’re acknowledging that yes, that’s an issue too, and we will deal with one thing at a time.
The A in MAN stands for appear confident. You’re really trying to have a stance that whatever you’re asking for, whatever you’re saying no to, your desire is valid. Even if you don’t feel it. You might have to do a little Opposite Action on this. This step is about establishing a stance that it’s appropriate for you to express this. It’s necessary in relationships to express your needs and desires.
This step is about appearing confident as you say what you need to say and throughout the conversation rather going in with a more passive fawning stance. “I’m so sorry to have to ask you to empty the dishwasher again, I know that you’re really busy. I’m so so so so sorry.”
Instead, you’re trying to say and embody that what you’re communicating is reasonable. “You said you would empty the dishwasher, I’m going to follow up on this.” Some of us are more inclined to soften requests when we’re talking to other people. In the other set of skills in Interpersonal Effectiveness, there’s a place for softening the request. But in general, you don’t want to soften so much that you don’t appear confident.
The last letter of DEAR MAN is n, for negotiate.
If you struggle to feel like you have a right to ask for what you want and need, or have a right to say no, you don’t want to jump to negotiation too quickly. If you fall on the other end of the spectrum where you might be more demanding, or insisting on getting your needs met, and less willing to account for what the other person wants or needs, you might want to go a little bit heavier on the negotiation.
When you’re negotiating, you are trying jointly to come up with some kind of agreement or outcome that will satisfy both of you. You can be willing to reduce your request if necessary. You can ask the other person, “Well, what do you think we should do?” That’s called turning the tables so you’re making it more of a “we” problem where you can brainstorm together. “This is something that’s really important to me. Let’s see if we can come up with ideas together.”
Those are the basics of the DEAR MAN approach to asking for what you need, saying no to what you need to, and expressing yourself clearly.
How can you apply DEAR MAN in difficult interactions?
A question that comes up pretty regularly in our skills group is, “What about when things go off the rails, when the other person is very argumentative and they’re really not wanting to engage in the conversation?”
Let’s say you try using the Broken Record strategy mentioned earlier, and the other person is just pushing back a lot. What can you do?
Make sure to be prepared
This will come up at times and the DEAR MAN skill can help you feel very prepared, by helping you think ahead. Being prepared helps you be more confident in interactions, and a lot of times, other people respond to that, and they’re like, “Oh, you’ve really thought about this, you have specific things to say, I want to take this seriously and listen to it.”
Oftentimes, especially in very close regular relationships, family members, spouses, partners, children, people that you live with, people that you work with really regularly, there can be such an ease of back and forth, that people don’t respond well to you coming in prepared and ready and specific about what you’re asking. We want to talk today about how to use the DEAR MAN skills when you’re in the interaction and it’s not going well, and it’s becoming more contentious.
One of the first things that you can do is to bring your mindfulness skills on board to describe the current interaction as it’s happening. You’re commenting on what’s happening right here right now, without assigning motive, without making assumptions about what the other person is doing or saying and why. You just want to comment on what is actually happening live right now.
Here’s an example. “You keep asking me over and over, even though I have already said no several times.” Or, “It’s hard to keep asking you to empty the dishwasher when it is your month to do so.” So you are commenting live on the situation, keeping assumed motives of the other person out of what you’re saying.
Describe and Express during difficult interactions
If you are in a conversation where you’ve already been trying to do a DEAR MAN, or you’re just having a conversation, and you can tell that it is getting very argumentative, take a step back. Use the STOP skill and take a step back, notice, observe what’s happening here, what you’re feeling about what’s going on, and then try to proceed mindfully using the DEAR acronym as a reminder. “Okay, I’m going to describe what’s happening right now. You sound really upset. And you keep saying no to what I’m asking, and I’m not sure what to do,”
You can use the DEAR skill to just step back and say, “Hold on, here’s what’s happening right now.” And so describe what you see happening right now. And then you can use the E to express how you feel about that. “I noticed that you keep trying to take the conversation to other topics. And I’m trying to stay on the dishwasher topic, and I feel like you’re not really engaged in trying to solve this problem with me.” What you’re going for is the ability to describe what’s happening and express how you’re feeling really concisely, which takes a lot of practice.
Describe what’s happening right now in the interaction that’s difficult and express how you feel about that. Keep the Express focused on your own feelings as much as possible. “This is really hard for me, I’m starting to feel really frustrated or sad, this is getting to feel really uncomfortable for me.”
You really want to stay away from comments like, “Every time we talk about this, you get so defensive,” or, “I can’t stand you,” or things like that. You don’t want to express those kinds of feelings or opinions about the interaction. If those feelings are really strong for you in the moment, you’re going to need to take a timeout. Use a STOP skill. You’re going to need some Distress Tolerance skills, because your distress level is too high and you can’t think as clearly as you would probably like to in those moments.
Continuously checking in, “Am I in Wise Mind right now? Am I in Emotion Mind?” can be helpful. If you’re slipping too deep into Emotion Mind, then what starts to come out is more emotional content, like “I hate this, I hate you, I hate everything,” You want to stick with expressing specifically, “I feel really worried about what’s going to happen if we don’t resolve this,” or “I feel really angry that we keep coming back to the same thing, and you’re not trying to work with me on this.” So describe what’s happening in the moment, express how that makes you feel.
Assert during difficult interactions
Then, assert your wishes in the situation. This is your ask, but it’s a little bit different. You’re not asking for the original thing, which is what is getting you kind of stuck in this interaction. You’re asking potentially to stop discussing the issue and to come back to it at a different time, or to just kind of cool down and then try to figure out a solution together. You can suggest putting the conversation off for another time, and give the other person a chance to think about it.
When you are in these heated conversations, there can be such a sense of urgency to figure it out right now. That urgency is a telltale sign that you need to pause. You can notice that urge as a sign that you’re too emotionally engaged right now and you need to step away and do some Distress Tolerance. Probably the other person does, too.
Very often the assertion is, “Can we come back to this, can we take a break?” or maybe “Can we change the topic and talk about something else, and then come back?” This is the point at which your DEAR that you may have started with isn’t working. And you need a pause. Often in this case, the assertion is “Can we pause?”
Have you heard the phrase “never go to bed angry with your significant other,”? This advice can actually be harmful.
Sometimes you need to go to bed with things unresolved, right? When you need to go to work, or take care of the kids, or do other things and trust that you can come back to it at another time.
Know when to take a pause
We know from the entire DBT skill set that in order to be effective, we need to stay in Wise Mind, which very often means slowing down, taking a pause, or stepping away. Many of the Distress Tolerance skills require stepping away from the thing that’s causing distress in order to get a break from it, to get perspective, to accept some things and figure out what actually you need to do. Often in these difficult conversations, it’s important for us to just acknowledge and describe this is getting difficult. “Here’s how I feel right now. And can we take a break in one way or another?”
You want to stay away from telling people to shut up or any kind of name calling. Those kinds of statements, which are easy to say, obviously will work against our goals. You can even tell someone else “You’re not in your Wise Mind, I think you need to calm down, don’t you?”
Assert is an opportunity to step back, or sometimes what’s going to help is to assert, “I’m not going to say yes to your request, and I just want to be clear, I’m not going to say yes, or no.” Or “I’m not going to give up on trying to figure out what to do about this problem.” Or “I’m noticing that we’re really arguing here, when I wanted to try to solve a problem. I’m feeling really frustrated and overwhelmed. I want to be clear, I’m not gonna say no or yes.” Or “I’m not going to give up on this, we need to figure something out.”
Sometimes you need to assert that the other person can argue all they want, you’re not going to give up on your position, so that you’re making it clear. Even as you’re saying that, usually you have to offer an alternative, which is almost always “Can we take a break and come back to this?”
Reinforce during difficult interactions
The reinforce that you might use in this in-the-moment difficult conversation would be to think about what might be beneficial for the other person. Why might they agree to a pause, or to change the conversation, or whatever you’re asking for? Think a little bit about why it’s valuable for them to do what you’re asking. So if the ask is, “I want to take a pause, I think I will be able to think more clearly and think creatively about what to do if I have some space,” or “I don’t want to fight with you. And I don’t want us to feel a lot of conflict. So can we please take a break so that we can bring down some of the tension?” Think about what might be beneficial to the other person as well in what you’re asking for at that moment.
Again, you want to stay away from the more threatening comments, like, “You must be a terrible person for not wanting to do this,” or “I’m gonna get a restraining order against you,” or “I’m gonna break up with you,” We want to avoid those kinds of threats.
All of this is a reminder that the DEAR MAN skill and all of the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills in DBT are about thinking ahead about what we want, what our goals are, and coming up with a strategy to express that clearly. Using the DEAR MAN format is usually the most helpful. When it’s not working, when it becomes difficult, when it’s tense, when you notice like, ‘Okay, now this is a lot of conflict. And we’re not going to be able to resolve this.” If you can step back and use the DEAR acronym as a reminder to yourself, “Okay, describe what I’m experiencing, express how I feel and assert something.”
If the interaction is difficult, you might forget what your options are for asserting. “Can we take a pause?” is the simple one. Then you can reinforce what’s in it for the other person as a way to get yourself out of this conflict, rather than trying to just broken record until you can’t stand each other anymore. There’s a place for the broken record, if it keeps the conversation on topic. But if for instance, the broken record approach of just repeating what you want to stay on topic is causing even more conflict, that’s where it’s okay to step away.
Consider what’s going on underneath this argument
When you’re having conversations that turn heated, so often there’s a subtext, or things where you might not be aware of as your distress level rises. You think you’re talking about whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher, but you’re really touching on much older stuff, like, “No one listens to me,” or “I have to do everything,” or “I don’t know if the people closest to me really care about me.” When we start saying those more accusatory or threatening or more extreme things, and when the conversation starts to speed up, that’s often what’s happening in the background. One of the most effective things is to slow down, take a pause, not by storming out but where you both take a break and come back into your Wise Minds.
Using the DEAR acronym as a guide can be helpful in doing that, rather than saying, “I’m out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore,” which is just going to be inflammatory, and it’s going to be hard to come back.
Being able to say, “Hold on, I’m noticing that we just keep going in circles. I’m feeling frustrated or worried/overwhelmed/sad, whatever it might be, can we take a break? I think it’ll help both of us be able to think more clearly.” is a way the DEAR acronym can be your guide, when you need to get out of a difficult interaction, instead of just walking away or saying, “I’m walking away, I’m not doing this anymore,” which can be too inflammatory.
It’s important, when you need to ask for things or say no to things, to put effort into being prepared. This includes Coping Ahead, if you know things could get difficult, you can plan for when you will employ this DEAR for getting out of the conversation, and be on alert for that.
In relationships or situations where interactions could become contentious, cope ahead by planning your backup DEAR. “I’m noticing this is difficult, I’m feeling this, can we take a pause, I think it’ll be helpful for me, and we can resolve this later,” or whatever you might say. You might do a little backup DEAR for getting out of the conversation you need to. In general, with Interpersonal Effectiveness, if you’re not getting anywhere, both people need to step away, need to take a break. That automatic, natural urge to fight and to feel like “I’m going to fight until we solve this,” is going to override your Wise Mind and our ability to stay effective. And that’s where we want to really keep in mind – if it’s not working, step away.
That’s a review of DEAR MAN and how to apply DEAR MAN when you are in a difficult situation, what to do in the moment, and different strategies to help you slow things down, or come back to things later.
This is an opportunity to think about this, reflect on this, try to apply it a little bit and see what works and what doesn’t work because most of this is we’re experimenting with how to stay effective.