Regardless of how you are wired as a person, and regardless of how someone else is wired as a person, there are three A’s which are indispensable for human interactions: Assert, Appreciate, Apologize. If you can get these three concepts down, you are well on your way to more effective communication…not to mention healthier relationships!
We are going to learn a simple formula for each of these skills. The formula is this: DEAR Adult. This is an acronym, and each letter stands for an important concept. In this blog post, we will learn how to use DEAR Adult to assert (adapted from Linehan, 2015).
Here’s the scenario. Let’s assume your roommate keeps leaving his dirty dishes in the sink, and you are the one that ends up washing them. You could ignore the problem and hope he finally gets the hint. Or you could go off the deep end and cuss him out. Either way, the problem might not get resolved. So let’s learn a more effective way of dealing with this situation.
D – Describe
- The first step is to simply describe the situation. However, when you describe, you need to stay as neutral, objective, and non-judgmental as possible: Just the facts. Do not blame, point fingers, or make assumptions. When you describe, it is also helpful to avoid dropping the “you” bomb whenever possible. As soon as you interject the word “you,” the other person is likely to become defensive and might even counter-attack. Therefore, it is helpful to frame the situation in terms of “I statements” and “we statements” instead of “you statements.” This is a really good way to avoid the impression of blaming or pointing fingers.
- Ineffective: “You never wash the freaking dishes you little freak!!”
- Effective: “I have noticed that we do not have a system in place to make sure the dishes get washed.”
E - Express
- Now that you have described the situation, you have established the necessary context to express how you feel about the situation. Once again, it is really important to avoid the “you bomb” whenever possible, and to use either “I statements” and “we statements” instead. It is fine at this point to mention any emotions that you might be feeling. However, be careful not to exaggerate your feelings either.
- Ineffective: “You really tick me off whenever you are too freaking lazy to wash your own freaking dishes!”
- Effective: “It is frustrating that there are no clean cups when we want to get a drink of water. I feel like there’s got to be a better system.”
A - Assert
- Now that you have described the situation, as well as expressed how you feel about the situation, you are in a much better position to finally assert To assert means that you ask people to change what they are doing. You may either ask people to stop doing something, to start doing something, or to alter what they are doing. Most people do not like to change. That is precisely why it is so important to first describe and first express before you attempt to assert. If you just assert out of the blue, with no context, people do not understand where you are coming from. But when you first describe the situation (non-judgmentally), you provide the first layer of context. And then when you express how you feel about the situation (non-judgmentally), you provide another layer of context. Now the other person not only understands that there is a problem, but they also understand how you feel about the problem. In other words, your request will now make much more sense.
- Ineffective: “So please get off your lazy butt and start washing the freaking dishes!”
- Effective: “So I propose we set up a rotation. What if we take turns washing the dishes?”
R - Reinforce
- This last step is crucial. Now that you have described, expressed, and asserted, it’s really important to reinforce everything you have stated so far. In normal everyday English, to reinforce something means to make it even stronger—“to strengthen or support something, especially with additional material.” For example, you might reinforce your door lock by adding an extra bolt: You have just made the lock even stronger. In psychology, reinforce also means to increase the likelihood of a behavior. For example, if you consistently reward a child with ice cream after she has eaten her vegetables, then you have just reinforced (increased) the chances she will eat her vegetables. Both definitions apply.
- In addition, there are two different things you want to reinforce: your request and the quality of the overall relationship. There are many ways of reinforcing both your request and the relationship. In my opinion, the best way of all is to explain that what you’re asking for is a “win / win proposition.” In other words, explain how what you are asking for is actually in the best interest of the other person too. If you do not reinforce in this way, then everything you have been describing, expressing, and asserting so far might come across as “me, me, me.” And as we all know, that can be a major turn-off. Therefore, it’s really important to flip the “m” into a “w” and turn that “me” into a “we”!
- Ineffective: “So have I been clear, or do you still not get it?”
- Effective: “How about this: I will wash the dishes on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and you wash the dishes the other three days. I don’t mind taking an extra day. And since it’s Monday, I don’t mind starting my rotation today. What do you think?”
So far we have learned an important sequence: Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforcement. While each of these steps is really important, so is something else: Your delivery. No matter how perfectly you articulate these steps, they will not work if you do not execute them the right way. In short, we need to deliver these steps like an adult—not like a child or parent!
Communication experts distinguish among three voices that we tend to use with other people (Berne, 2015). Sometimes we use the Parent Voice. That’s when we yell, scream, condemn, criticize, lecture, scold, or berate someone else. I know this description kind of gives parents a bad rap, but think of the voice your parents used on you when they were really upset or lost it. And sometimes we use the Child Voice. That’s when we whine, pout, sulk, complain, or throw a temper tantrum. Think of the voice your kids use when they want something forbidden at the supermarket. And sometimes we even use the Adult Voice. This is the voice two adults use with each other when both are calm and collected. Now I probably don’t have to tell which voice is the most effective: We all know that the Adult Voice is the voice of reason. However, when we are triggered enough, we all default to either the Parent Voice or Child Voice—even though they don’t work!
Here are some tips on how to use the Adult Voice:
1. First and foremost, the Adult Voice is mindful. In other words, the Adult Voice is both aware and accepting!
2. In particular, the Adult Voice is aware of many things, including the following:
- Our words
- Our volume
- Our body language
- Our facial expressions
- Our triggers
- Our timing
- Our proximity to speaker
3. In addition, the Adult Voice is accepting of all parties involved in the conversation. The Adult Voice accepts the other person’s wants and needs just as much as your wants and needs.
4. The Adult Voice knows how to use Distress Tolerance skills to cope with triggers which may arise in the conversation. What Distress Tolerance coping skills would help you in a difficult conversation?
5. The Adult Voice knows how to use Emotion Regulation skills to manage difficult emotions that arise in the conversation. What Emotion Regulation coping skills would help you in a difficult conversation?
6. The Adult Voice knows how to use Dialectical Thinking skills to avoid rigid or extreme though patterns. In other words, the Adult Voice knows how to think flexibility and process information from some else’s perspective.
7. This also means that the Adult Voice knows how to negotiate, compromise, and find the middle ground. The Adult Voice avoids power struggles and instead strives to find a win-win consensus.
8. The Adult Voice knows how to appear confident (not cocky!) instead of passive or aggressive.
9. In addition, the Adult Voice uses “connect talk” rather than “control talk.” We tend to use control talk when we just “know” that we are right, and we just “know” the other person is wrong. Typical forms of control talk include commands, accusations, and blame. You know you are using control talk when you tell other people how they should think, feel, and act. The main problem with control talk is that it does not work! Control talk simply provokes the other person to become defensive, to retaliate, to escalate, or to shut down. Think of the last time you felt controlled by someone. Did that make you want to conform to their expectations—or resist even more? Ultimately, control talk undermines rather than reinforces the relationship. Connect talk, on the other hand, means using inclusive words such as “we” and “us”—as opposed to making “me” versus “you” distinctions in the first place. Connect talk values the relationship more than being right or winning the blame game. Research shows that connecting words are much better at persuading people than control words (Kehoe, 2011).
10. In short, the Adult Voice knows how to take personal responsibility and offer to be part of the solution—instead of just blaming the other person or demanding that the other person change.