What makes communication important?
Communication refers to the manner in which we express ourselves with one another. Communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, is used to pass information to others and, conversely, to understand what is shared with us (Gudykunst, 2004). While the premise of exchanging information seems simple, communication can feel fraught when setting a boundary or advocating for one’s needs. We may feel fearful of someone becoming upset or angry with us or refusing to meet our wants and needs. Instead of using effective interpersonal skills, we may avoid direct communication and find ourselves becoming resentful of those who are not meeting the needs we have yet to express!
Assertive communication that describes the situation, expresses emotions about the situation, asserts a need, and reinforces the value of meeting that need is more likely to get us what we want in the context of interpersonal relationships. It is also important that we assert our needs without harming important relationships or losing self-respect.
What is DEAR-MAN?
DEAR-MAN is an interpersonal effectiveness skill developed by the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Dr. Marsha Linehan. When used effectively, DEAR-MAN enables us to advocate to get our needs met. DEAR represents, “describe, express, assert, and reinforce” as a template for a self-advocacy script. MAN represents, “mindful, appear confident, and negotiate” as the style in which the message is delivered. The DEAR-MAN acronym can be used to ask for something or to say no to someone, to achieve “objectives effectiveness,” that is, to get what you want (your objective) from another person (Linehan, 2014). Let us break this down further to understand how to use this important skill.
Using describe, the deliverer of the message factually states events leading up to the request. There should be no judgment or opinions, just the facts. Facts may include what people said or did and the events surrounding the situation being addressed. Using describe helps the listener build awareness and understanding of what’s leading to the request.
As the next step, express helps the deliverer share how they feel about what they described, using a feeling word (sad, scared, surprised, etc.) to convey their emotion and elicit buy-in from the receiver of the message. Emotions influence others as a call to action and allow the receiver to accurately understand one’s feelings and opinions about the situation that was just described.
Assert is used to request the behavior the deliverer expects from the situation in no uncertain terms. In asserting the message, the deliverer asks for what they need clearly and without apologies. The idea is to steer clear of being hesitant or apologetic, or demanding and aggressive. By leading with just the facts (describe) and sharing a feeling (express), the deliverer of the message can directly and clearly assert a need.
As a final step, reinforcing can provide the listener with an understanding of how they will benefit from accommodating the deliverer of the message. Reinforcing the message (i.e. providing the listener with a “what’s in it for me?” understanding) builds greater buy-in from the listener. Relationships are built on reciprocity, so helping the listener understand how they might benefit will elicit greater understanding and higher likelihood for meeting the request.
Next, the acronym “MAN” describes the style in which one delivers the message to the listener, that is, mindfully, appearing confident, and negotiating.
To be mindful, stay focused on your message, ignoring any distractions and defensiveness that may arise from the listener. The deliverer may notice the listener becomes upset or defensive when expressing a need; one might acknowledge the listener’s disappointment and still return to asserting that their need is valid.
Although the deliverer may feel threatened or afraid of the listener’s reaction to their need, appearing confident is paramount so as not to undermine the ask. This means while the deliverer may feel nervous, direct eye contact and confident voice tone and physical presence support the appearance of a confident stance.
Finally, before engaging in a dialogue to assert a need, assess where and how negotiation might be utilized. Perhaps a cleaner home is paramount to your needs, but you might be willing to compromise if your spouse suggests straightening once a week rather than daily. Consider where you might be willing to problem-solve ahead of making the ask and “be willing to give to get” (Linehan, 2004).
How is DEAR-MAN used?
To highlight the effectiveness of DEAR-MAN, the following example illustrates a common request one might make while navigating the pandemic with others who approach socializing with varied levels of COVID sensitivity. Perhaps out of an abundance of safety and concern for you and your loved ones, you are less willing to be physically close to friends, some of whom may not understand nor respect your desire for physical distance. This is an example of how the intervention can be used to express a need with a friend who does not respect social distance boundaries.
Describe: My family and I have quarantined since March and in the last month have decided to pursue outdoor activities only where we can maintain a socially distant six feet of space. While I appreciate that you asked us to get together over the last few months, we’re not comfortable gathering indoors.
Express: Instead of compromising to find a solution that allows us to see one another, you’ve brushed off alternative suggestions for us to spend time together and I feel disappointed we have not seen each other.
Assert: While we appreciate the invitation to dinner this weekend and want to get together, I noticed the weather calls for rain and we aren’t comfortable dining indoors. I’m hoping you might reschedule for Sunday when we can gather comfortably outdoors at a restaurant.
Reinforce: If you’re able to meet us on Sunday, we can finally have the chance to physically see one another and spend time together, which I know we both want to do.
Instead of avoiding communication or simply describing and asserting (here are the facts and here’s what I need), expressing an emotional appeal and reinforcing the benefit to the receiver helps generate buy-in. The receiver cannot deny one’s emotional experience, nor the benefits to both parties should they compromise and reunite in a space that feels safe for all. While not intended to be a universal cure for uncomfortable interactions, DEAR-MAN provides a template to navigate social situations more effectively. This intervention helps generate more understanding and potential goodwill in finding a way to get what you want, improve relationships, and maintain self-respect.
Why does it matter?
Communication can be complex and difficult to navigate, but it does not have to be impossible. The use of DEAR-MAN allows us to be more effective in our communication. A study of DEAR-MAN effectiveness found that the use of describe, express, assert, and reinforce in a test environment resulted in greater engagement from participants, as exhibited by verbal and behavioral compliance (Jameson, 2015). With practice, DEAR-MAN can support more effective communication that expresses one’s needs while maintaining the relationship and one’s self-respect. Navigating uncomfortable social situations can be challenging, but DEAR-MAN provides basic skills to help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t in a healthy and effective manner.
Gudykunst, W. B. (2004). Bridging differences: Effective intergroup communication (4th ed.). Sage Publications, Inc.
Jameson, M.T., (2015). “Assessing the Interpersonal Effectiveness of the Dear-Man Skill Using a Social Psychology Paradigm” Dissertation. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/dissertations/742
Linehan, M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.