Two people talking over a meal

DEAR MAN a New Communication Tool

How to navigate difficult conversations with people you love: the DEARMAN method

As the holidays approach, many of us are both excited to spend quality time with loved ones, and anxious about potential disagreements and conflicts that may arise. It can be difficult to make your voice heard whether you’re thrust back into childhood family dynamics, or tasked with additional work or social obligations. If you’re worried about navigating difficult conversations with people you love, you may want to turn to one of the tools of DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, to guide you in asserting yourself with patience and compassion for yourself and others. DBT is designed to provide skills to manage intense emotions and negotiate social relationships. It’s best known for worksheets and exercises aimed at teaching people to balance opposing forces and investigate the truth of powerful negative emotions - valuable resources in the face of a deep and potentially complex relationship. Among its many tools is D.E.A.R.M.A.N., an acronym that outlines best practices for communicating in difficult situations, particularly with those we hold dearest.

Describe: state the facts, avoid value judgments.

When entering a difficult conversation with someone you care about, emotions can run high for many reasons. 

  • You don’t want to compromise the other person’s feelings, but you want to ensure your voice is heard and your needs are met. 
  • We tend to be more heated with people we love because we trust them not to reject us even at our most raw and vulnerable. 
  • You may have a history of difficulty communicating or feeling heard and understood that colors any further exchanges.

Conflict and emotional baggage can detract from productivity in conversations. It can be helpful to establish a shared reality at the outset of the discussion to diffuse emotional tension and build rapport - what do you agree on right now? What are the facts of the situation? If possible, reiterate any information you may already have from the other person on how they feel. “You made plans for us to see your friends on this date, and it happens to be a work night for me.” “I want to go to my friend’s house party this weekend, but you’ve told me that you don’t get along too well with their friends.” At this stage, keep feelings out of it. Your goal is to reach a small agreement on the way to a hopefully larger one.

Express: use “I” statements to share your feelings. 

It’s important for you to be honest about how the other person’s actions impact you without immediately placing blame on them - they may not even be aware of the effects of their behavior. Avoid statements like “you never think about my schedule and you don’t respect my job” or “you never socialize with my friends, you’re so judgmental.”  Use “I” statements like “I feel anxious that I don’t have more control over my schedule,” or “I’m worried that I’m not able to spend time with people who are important to me.”

Assert: clearly state your specific wants or needs.

Don’t focus on how the other person is messing up or getting in your way - focus on the needs and desires you have that aren’t being met. Be as specific as possible to provide the other person with concrete feedback and actionable advice on how they can help to make you feel seen and heard. 

“I need to get a full night's sleep to feel good about work tomorrow. For me that means getting into bed by 10pm. If I go to this party, I’m worried that I won’t be back till much later and I won’t feel well rested.”

“I want you to spend time with my friends because they’re leaving town soon and I want them to meet you. I know you don’t get along with some of the people who will be there, but they are really important to me, and you’re important to me too. I want the people in my life I care the most about to know one another.”

Reinforce: reward the other person if they respond positively to you.

It might feel that you had to fight to get your point across in this situation, and you may feel it’s appropriate to take the other person’s cooperation as your due after this conversation. You may still be annoyed about the existence of the conflict, or smug that you overcame their resistance. However, you’re more likely to resolve the discussion to your benefit and lead to more beneficial behavior in the future if you acknowledge that they had to change their mind or put aside their misgivings to meet your needs. Without apologizing for asking, let the other person know that you appreciate their change of heart or behavior. 

“Thanks for listening and telling me you’ll think about this.” 

“I really appreciate you changing your plans for me - it means a lot.”

Mindfulness: keep the subject at hand at the forefront of the discussion and avoid being sidetracked.

Distractions can come from your own emotions and experiences. Especially in close relationships with family members or a partner, any single discussion is tied in a web with a history of disagreements and tensions. An individual incident of conflict can bring to mind years or even a lifetime of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. In the heat of the moment you may be tempted to bring this additional information to light as context for the intensity of your feelings, or to drive your point home. 

It’s important to keep in mind that bringing in past disagreements is most likely to increase conflict in a discussion at a time when you’re trying to minimize conflict and reach agreement. The person you’re talking to will be less likely to consider your point of view and more likely to defend themselves against a larger perceived attack. Focus on this small battle for optimum chances of success - your partner in this discussion is more likely to consider your point of view if they don’t feel defensive.

The other person may be distracted by their own emotions and experiences. If they bring in information not directly related to what you’re discussing, calmly but firmly resist their invitation to change the subject. If possible, use empathizing language to show you understand their point of view whether they’re bringing up old baggage or just trying to change the subject entirely. “I get why this feels related but I want to focus on what we’re talking about right now.” “I understand it’s uncomfortable to talk about this but I need to explain how I feel and find a solution that works for both of us.”

Appear confident: be mindful of your body language and project confidence even if you don’t feel it.

If you’re having a difficult conversation with someone who you’re used to deferring to, even if you’re taking steps to use your voice more and assert yourself, your body will mirror how you normally feel in this situation. Relationship dynamics build up over time into reflexes that can be difficult to check, especially when they’re coded into our body language. Paying attention to body language and making small changes to project confidence can alter the way you feel, and the way the other person feels about you. 

  • Smile and laugh if you can: project that this conversation is low stakes, and that you have a good sense of humor and proportion no matter the subject or outcome. It will help the other person relax, which can make them more open to your requests or suggestions, and will help you relax as well.
  • Pay attention to posture: stand up straight, pull your shoulders back, uncross your arms, and plant both feet firmly at hip width. You’ll literally be more grounded, which can translate into feeling powerful and assured. The other person will be more likely to trust your judgment.
  • Maintain attention contact: you don’t have to stare unblinking into someone’s eyes to keep a connection. Rather, pay attention to the other person’s face and their changing expressions. It keeps your own face and emotions front of mind, and allows you both to be more present in the conversation. The other person is more likely to be swayed by your opinions and feelings, and will feel that you are listening to them and taking their considerations seriously, which increases their confidence in and deference towards you.

Negotiate: know the limits of what you’re willing to accept, but be willing to compromise within them.

We can’t always get our way, no matter how effectively we use our words and actions. However, a mutually beneficial compromise is better than a stalemate. To ensure you don’t lose out on your needs entirely, consider a few hard boundaries. What’s the minimum you’re willing to accept if things don’t go your way? What are you willing to exchange with the other person in order to get what you need? 

Knowing where your boundaries are may take some reflection, and putting them into practice may take some flexibility. If you’re unused to setting boundaries and the other person is unused to seeing you do so, this may be an iterative process. Be open-minded to potential signs of progress and find the easiest way forward, even if it looks like baby steps. 

Ironically, being honest with the people we’re closest with can be harder than being honest with more casual acquaintances. There’s a temptation to put up walls and screen ourselves from letting people we love see us too clearly. On top of all this, the holidays are a busy time when our attentions are scattered to many different obligations, and having difficult conversations may be the last thing we want to do in the midst of the chaos. Hopefully the simple tips encompassed in D.E.A.R.M.A.N. provide easily actionable tools you can implement one by one to work towards more open, honest, and productive conversations with everyone in your life.

Learn more about DEARMAN with our VIDEO