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Interpersonal effectiveness-what gets in the way?

Do you have difficulty saying no, asking for what you need, or coping with interpersonal conflicts? We all have difficulties in these areas at times. We have all said yes to a request and later regretted it, struggled on alone with a problem without asking for help, and given in to someone to avoid conflict even when we feel quite strongly about the situation. 

However, if a person has pervasive difficulties in interpersonal communication, it can significantly impact his or her quality of life. He or she may terminate relationships prematurely to avoid conflict, vacillate between conflict avoidance and intense confrontation, and experience high levels of resentment, frustration, and perhaps anger, in interpersonal situations.

What are the factors that impact on interpersonal effectiveness? Marsha Linehan, the clinical psychologist who developed Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, or DBT for short, describes five factors that can interfere with effective interpersonal behaviour.

Interpersonal interactions can be tricky

Skills lacking

The first factor is simply a skills deficit. Effective social behaviours are learnt by observing someone else do the behaviours and then practising them until good results are obtained.  A person may have had limited opportunities to observe and practice effective skills growing up, often because of family disruption of some kind. The result can be that the person simply does not know how to behave effectively.

Worry thoughts and emotions

The second and third factors are worry thoughts and emotional reactions. A person may know how to act in an effective manner, but his or her thoughts and emotions interfere with effectiveness. Common worry thoughts occurring in interpersonal situations are “They’ll think I’m stupid” and “I won’t do this right”, and common emotional reactions are anxiety, anger and guilt. These emotions can be very strong, and at times automatic, so they overwhelm a person’s capacity to act effectively.


Indecision is the fourth factor interfering with effectiveness. We struggle to effectively say no to a request if we are ambivalent about whether we want to do it, and we struggle to effectively ask for help if we are not sure if our request is reasonable or how strongly we should persist in asking.

Environmental factors

The fifth factor concerns what we can call “environmental” issues. Sometimes we do not get our objective met despite behaving in an effective manner. We cannot control aspects of the social environment such as the capacity of the other person to comply with our request, the desire of the other person to negotiate in a conflict, or the authority the other person may have in determining the outcome of the situation. It is important that we consider environmental factors when objectives are not met, so that we do not interpret the failure to meet our objectives as solely a failure in our own skills. Sometimes even the most skilled United Nations negotiators do not achieve their objectives!

These factors can interact to create acute difficulties for people. In the words of Marsha Linehan (1993), “The less you know, the more you worry, the more you can’t decide what to do, the more ineffective you are, the more you worry and so on. Or the more you experience non-giving and authoritarian environments, the more you worry, the less you practice, the less you know, the worse you feel, the more you can’t decide what to do, and so on.”


The Interpersonal Effectiveness module of DBT provides a set of interpersonal skills to help get objectives met, and improve interpersonal relationships and self-esteem.  If you experience difficulties in interpersonal situations, and would like to learn more effective skills, please consider making an appointment with me.  I invite you to also read my article About DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills.

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