I6: Barriers to Interpersonal Effectiveness


In this exercise we are going to look at some common barriers to interpersonal effectiveness that we may struggle with because of the communication style we've learned throughout our lives. As you get familiar with the barriers we'll work on, becoming mindful of whether these barriers apply to you.

Remember, be self-compassionate and gentle with yourself if you spot some of the barriers to interpersonal effectiveness in the way you are communicating. Strict perfectionism is counter-productive as there is no such thing as a perfect way of communicating. Treat this as a journey. Let's start!

DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness: Barriers to Interpersonal Effectiveness
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Below are several different types of barriers to effective communication. For each of them, there is an exercise that you can do in order to try to adopt a healthier and more assertive way of communicating.

Barriers I): Old Patterns

Your upbringing and past relationships may have influenced the way you communicate today. You may have learned certain habits of communicating that are not assertive, but that lean towards a more aggressive or passive style. Falling into these patterns may be not the most effective way of communicating in every situation and may be standing between you and the results you want.

Aggressive Patterns

Among the more aggressive habits of communication are:

1) Discounting the needs of the others,
2) Blaming others for a conflict situation we may have,
3) Belittling others by trying to make them feel stupid or wrong for their point of view
4) Derailing from the other person's needs and emotions. Taking attention away from the needs and emotions of others and focusing attention only on you needs and emotions
5) Withdrawing from the communication or making threats.
6) Guilt tripping others by trying to frame any disagreement as some kind of moral failing on their part
7) Punishing or threatening to punish others. This might by physical punishment, but it could also include emotional punishments like withdrawing affection.

These types of communication produce generally create negative emotional consequences and damage interpersonal relationships. If you default to using some of these tactics for all conflicts, then this is a good

Passive Patterns

The most common passive habit of communication is becoming silent or surrendering when there is a conflict because you might fear that you will make the situation worse.

Passive patterns often create a short-term payoff because they end the conflict quickly. But, these types of passive behaviors are usually not very successful long-term strategies, because they don’t communicate what we want, nor do they satisfy our need to be heard.

Think about which one of these old patterns (aggressive or passive) you usually engage in. Try to think about the consequences of these type of behavior. What usually happens as a result? Next, try to think about whether or not your needs are met at the end of the communication.

Old Pattern : Derailing any discussion of the other person’s needs and emotions and focusing only on my own needs and emotions.
Result: At the end of the conversation the other person doesn’t feel heard and we are disconnected from one another.
Are my needs met? By engaging in this pattern I am usually (unconsciously) getting some of my needs met by focusing attention on my grievances. But, by not validating their feelings, I am causing them to disconnect from me, and we aren’t getting any long-term resolution.

Barriers II): Identifying Needs

Sometimes, one of the blocks to using the assertiveness skills can be not being able to identify our needs at the moment. You get so wrapped up in the conflict, that you can’t remember how you got there or what you were trying to achieve. If you noticed that you cannot clearly identify what you need during a conversation or a conflict you have, take a little time and try to prioritize your needs.

Example: I am scared that if I tell my friend that I don't like the places she picks, she will get mad. Although history shows that this might actually happen, I feel like I still need to do it. If she gets mad, my plan is to explain to her that it is nothing personal, and that I simply would like, from time to time, to go to places that I enjoy as well.

Barriers III): Negative Predictions

Another barrier to using the assertiveness skills is fear that something might go wrong - we are building all kinds of scenarios in our heads - what if she gets mad, what if our relationship becomes worse, what if, what if...

In this case, first try to evaluate how real and objective your fear is. What is the evidence for and against the scenario that you fear? Last, write down a plan about how you would cope if what you fear actually happens. What would you do? What strategies would you use to tackle the situation better?

Example: I am scared that if I tell my friend that I don't like the places she picks, she will get mad. Although history shows that this might actually happen, I feel like I still need to do it. If she gets mad, my plan is to explain to her that it is nothing personal, and that I simply would like, from time to time, to go to places that I enjoy as well.

Barriers IV): Overwhelming Emotions

Sometimes when people are raised in families where conflicts happens often and in a more heated way, they can automatically become emotionally overwhelmed when dealing with conflict. One of the potential results can be withdrawing from the situation and being overwhelmed.

In this case, first try to observe whether you have some of the signs of overwhelming emotions (pounding heart, sweating, feeling hot, tension in your body). Next, try to mindfully breathe for several minutes engaging your diaphragm. Observe how your belly moves up and down as you inhale and exhale. Try to become mindful of whether you feel calmer after doing this short exercise.

Situation:My boyfriend got angry with me, and I had difficulty understanding what he was saying because I withdraw from the situation.
Signs of overwhelming emotions: I felt flushed, my heart was beating fast.
Mindful breathing and the result: I felt a little more composed after doing the mindful breathing.

Barriers V): Toxic Relationships

There are cases where despite our effort to try to "change" the other person, they might regularly engage in behaviors such as belittling us, using aggressive ways of communication like blaming or threatening.

In this case, the first step is to try to become more centered, and calmer. If you get centered in your wise mind what would you discover? Usually, you can predict how the perpetrator in a toxic relationship behaves, and you can anticipate their pattern of behavior. Make a plan of what you would say in an assertive way and follow your plan through.

After I calmed myself down, I reminded myself that my boss usually tries to put the blame on me about any problem that may arise. My strategy is to let him know the objective facts of the situation, and to tell him what type of an atmosphere I need in order to work effectively.

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I can observe that I engage in some old patterns, but I criticize myself too much when I think about changing them.

It is important to note that the old patterns that you've built in the past are a result from several factors such as parental style of your parents, past relationships and multiple other complex factors. You didn't develop them intentionally and consciously which is why there is no need to blame yourself if you engage in some of the old patterns that we work on. Try to be self-compassionate and practice the assertiveness skills so that you will improve your interpersonal effectiveness.

As I work on the exercises from this module, I get a little overwhelmed because I can see that there are several things that I should work on, and I don't have so much time.

The social and interpersonal sphere of our lives is a complex one - there are different aspects that affect each other and there are other people involved as well. Try not to put so much pressure on yourself and set reasonable expectations. For example, you can prioritize that you would like to work on how to deal with a toxic relationship that you have and set aside several weeks so that you can learn and practice how to do that. When you feel like you reached results that you are satisfied with, move on to another skill that you want to practice. Remember not to discredit the effort that you put into practicing the skills.

Is the point of this exercise to become a perfect communicator?

Just as with everything else in life, there is no such thing as being perfect at something, that is an abstract and relative term. The point of this exercise is to identify the barriers that are most prominent in your interpersonal effectiveness and work on one of them at a time. Everyone to some extent experiences one or more of the barriers mentioned. The idea behind this exercise is not to pinpoint even the slightest flaws and barriers that you engage in but to focus on gradual growth and practice.

I have noticed that my partner/parent/child exhibits one of these communication barriers. How do I help them?

For most of us it easier to see other people’s issues than our own issues. We would encourage you to start by focusing on self-reflection and noticing issues in your own communication first. You will sometimes notice that these communication barriers are part of a dance that you do with other people and that you play a part. For example maybe you communicate aggressively, and they respond aggressively too.

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If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental health care provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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