A lot of us have mixed feelings about saying “no” in certain situations or asking someone to do something for us.
Maybe we feel guilty or inadequate for having to ask someone else for help. Maybe we feel like we are being a burden, or bottle up our frustrations and unmet needs until they boil over and we lash out. Sometimes we feel like we can’t say no, or are anxious about the prospect of being turned down or asked to do something in return. Perhaps we have been socialized to be a pleaser or find it easier to be passive or manipulative in communicating our desires and wishes. Maybe we just don’t know how to assert ourselves in emotionally-driven situations.
Struggling to communicate our needs or set boundaries can play itself out in many ways. You might never ask for that promotion or pay-raise, and build up resentment toward your work. You may continue to go along with things in your relationship and then begrudge your partner for never changing. Some people might act out emotionally or withhold to get what they want. When we are indirect, withholding— or on the opposite end of the spectrum: too aggressive or confrontational— we sacrifice our needs for our emotional state and this wreaks havoc in our relationships. We need to be able to communicate what we want and say no in relationships in order for them to be healthy and authentic.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy uses an acronym to remember the steps — in order — to outline an effective way to ask for something or say no: DEAR MAN.
These guidelines provide a reference for not only what to say but how to say it. It forces us to think about what we really want from an interaction and acts on it effectively. If you feel like your emotions get the worst of you in interpersonal situations, try working through these steps for more assertive communication.
D stands for Describe.
You begin with describing in order to get on the same page with the other person. You state the facts and what is objective about the situation. You clarify with the other person what you both can agree on in terms of what is going on or what has happened. This forces you both to be present and mindful and illustrates that our opinions are separate from the facts.
Say you are in a conflict with your partner regarding whether or not to travel to visit their family. You don’t think you should have to go and they want you to go. You might state the facts: that you have gone to visit their family the past two vacations, the trip is expensive, and you really don’t have the time to take off from work. Your partner may add the fact that they don’t get to see their family very much and that since your family is closer, you see them more often. It’s important to give credence to the facts…
E stands for Express.
After you have described the situation, you say what you think and how you feel about it. Use “I” statements, and take ownership of your stance.
Delineating your feelings from the facts tends to foster more compassion and cuts out some of the useless arguings that happen in conversations where the facts and emotions get conflated. This allows an opportunity for self-validation as well. You are acknowledging your emotions and expressing vulnerability in an empowered way. You’re not stating your emotions are “right” or “wrong”— they just are.
Emotions are real and valid. In the case of the example above, you might say that you dislike traveling this time of year and you feel left out when you are around their family.
A stands for Assert.
This is when you ask for what you want or say “no.” I work with couples who are in conflict and so derailed by accusations and insults that they have never really asked for or have thought about, what they actually want that their partner can provide. They are expressing their emotions and expecting their partner to fix them, or they feel like they are being attacked and become defensive. Starting with the facts, followed by a statement regarding how you feel about them really sets the stage to be clear about your request.
You might ask your partner to plan a trip for just the two of you, to alternate trips between your family and theirs, or ask for them to do specific things that would make you feel more included in their family.
R stands for Reinforce.
We know from behavioral psychology that if we want a behavior to increase we need to reward or reinforce it. Unfortunately, a lot of times we utilize “punishment” in our relationships. We might yell, insult, threaten, or withhold from our partner to get them to stop or change. In a lab setting, if you punish an animal for performing a task, the animal makes efforts to avoid the punishment but does not necessarily stop the behavior. The animal also becomes fearful and neurotic. If we reward a behavior, we tend to see an increase in frequency and can create a relational bond. You might tell your partner that if they do what you are asking it would make you feel more on the same team and closer to them. This is an opportunity to be vulnerable and to reflect on the goal: to improve the relationship.
M stands for Mindful.
Be present and in the moment. Don’t bring up past grievances or get sidetracked by them. Stay focused on the moment and be intentional when you are talking.
A stands for act Assertive.
Even if you don’t feel assertive, use an even tone of voice, make eye contact, don’t threaten or belittle. It’s okay to show emotion, but use your words and not your emotions to express what you want and how you feel.
N stands for being willing to Negotiate.
When all is said and done, the other person may have reasons for not changing, and you need to hear them out and determine whether this is someone you can negotiate with. If you reach an impasse try “turning the tables,” which means asking the other person what they would do if they were in your situation. Think of the negotiation process as a bonding experience rather than a battle of wills.
Using these strategies should make for productive interactions and leave both people feeling considered and validated. Remember it takes two to be skilled. You can also model this for others: ask them to describe their situation, ask them how they feel or what the think about it, what they need from you, and how it will improve the relationship.
Good luck and converse on!