DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills: The Guide to Healthy Relationships

A relationship is like a tall, leafy tree. A tree requires a system of healthy roots to nourish and anchor the tree. As the roots grow, the tree also grows bigger, stronger, and more developed--they may even produce fruit! Like the tree, your relationships with others also have roots. In order to grow a healthy relationship, the roots must be healthy, as well. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) provides specific skills to grow strong roots and build or maintain healthier relationships. You can easily remember these skills by their acronyms: THINK, FAST, GIVE, and DEAR MAN.

A relationship is like a tall, leafy tree. A tree requires a system of healthy roots to nourish and anchor the tree. As the roots grow, the tree also grows bigger, stronger, and more developed... Like the tree, your relationships with others also have roots. In order to grow a healthy relationship, the roots must be healthy, as well.

The goals of DBT's interpersonal effectiveness skills are to build and maintain positive relationships. These skills are often natural in people who have experienced healthy relationships throughout their lives. DBT has dissected these traits and formed them into four concrete skills. Mastering these skills can be helpful for anyone, but especially for individuals who have experienced trauma or struggle with an attachment disorder.


THINK is a newer DBT interpersonal effectiveness skill. It was developed to reduce negative emotions toward others. You won't need to use this skill in every interaction, but it will be helpful when interpersonal problems arise and you're feeling upset.

Think — about the situation from the other person's perspective. Is she angry, too? Is she viewing you as unreasonable, just like you're viewing her as unreasonable?

Have empathy — What does it feel like to be the other person? Let yourself feel her emotions for a moment.

Interpretations — of the other person's behavior. Think about possible reasons why she did the thing that upset you. Start with outlandish reasons (to open your mind) and move toward more realistic reasons.

"She was raised in a lab and doesn't have a heart → She wasn't raised in the lab, but she works for the lab and is doing tests on how mean she can be and get away with it → Her hamster died this morning and she's masking her sadness with meanness → She struggles with depression and just had a snap that caused her to be rude → She's just human and got frustrated and didn't manage it well. We all make mistakes."

Hopefully, these first three steps will bring your anger level down enough to be more rational in your thoughts and actions. That will help you with the following two steps.

Notice — the other person. Notice when she is trying to be kind and improve the relationship. Notice that she looks scared, even though you thought she was mad. Notice that she smiled at you, even though you may not be on good terms yet. You don't have to do anything about it just yet, simply take note.

Kindness — in your response. This doesn't mean you have to forgive and forget immediately. This simply means that your words are kind. You may say, "What you said to me hurt, and I hope we can fix this in the future. Right now I need some space." A kind response will be better for the long-term relationship than name-calling and yelling.

The acronym THINK could be considered an interpersonal distress tolerance skill. Once you're in a place where you feel able to manage your emotions toward the other person, you'll be able to successfully use the next interpersonal effectiveness skills.


FAST is about maintaining your self-respect during conflict. You'll want to use these skills first in sequential order, and then all together.

Fair — to yourself and others. This includes both your thoughts and your actions. When you're being fair, you are not using dramatic or judgmental thoughts or statements such as "I'm powerless in this situation" or "They're the worst!" Instead, your thoughts may be along the lines of, "What's going on for that person, and what's going on for me?" or "I didn't agree with most of what he just said, but what were the elements of truth?"

(no) Apologies — this doesn't mean you never apologize--apologizing can be incredibly powerful in relationships. However, you don't need to apologize when you haven't done anything wrong.

Stick to your values — Stand up for what you believe in. If you're not sure what you believe in, do some self-examination to determine your values. Be honest about what you value. If you say you value family but you avoid them at all costs, then you're not valuing family. You may want to make a list of your current values, and what you hope your values will be in the future.

Truthful — be honest with yourself and others. Are you exaggerating the situation? Are you minimizing it? Are your words true?

Using the four steps of FAST will allow you to maintain your dignity and come out of a situation feeling good about yourself, regardless of how you feel about the outcome.

While THINK and FAST can be used in all interpersonal communication, they are especially helpful when there is conflict in the relationship. For everyday interpersonal communication, you can use the skills GIVE and DEAR MAN to grow a healthy relationship.


The GIVE skill is useful in every interpersonal relationship. Whether it's your first time meeting this person or you've been married for 45 years, GIVE will help to build and maintain positive relationships.

Gentle — in your approach. When you're gentle, you are being mindful of the other person's emotions. This will help the person with whom you're communicating to feel loved instead of attacked. Communication is always better when no one is feeling defensive.

Interested — in what the other person is saying. Interest can be conveyed through words and/or body language. Using words, you can ask the person questions about what she is saying or simple "uh-huh" "oh really?" responses. You can convey interest through body language by maintaining eye contact, actually listening to what is being said, and making a facial expression.

Validate — Confirm not only that you hear what the other person is saying, but that you understand it by echoing the emotion back to her. If she is telling you that her friend canceled their lunch date for the third time in a row, you might say "How frustrating! You must feel so disappointed!"

Easy manner — present yourself as being relaxed and comfortable throughout the interaction. You will be more approachable.

Both verbal and nonverbal communication is essential in the GIVE skill. These actions will set you up for effective interpersonal communication in each of your relationships.


DEAR MAN is the interpersonal skill used to ask for something in a respectful and effective way that builds and maintains a relationship--whether or not you actually get what you are asking for.

Describe — the situation in a simple way. If you want to go to the movies with your friends, you could briefly describe the situation by saying, "My friends are going to see the new comic book movie this weekend."

Express — what you would like. "I would like to go to the movie with them."

Assert — why this is important to you in a way that is respectful, and not aggressive. "I haven't been able to spend much time with them since track season started, so it would be really meaningful if I could spend time with them."

Reinforce — when you do get what you asked for. "I promise I'll have my room clean and my homework is done before I leave for the movie."

Mindful — Stay in that moment. Don't worry about the past or future, such as what your friends will say if you can't go. Just be in that moment.

Appear Confident — are you scared out of your mind to ask your boss for a raise? She doesn't need to know that. Approach the situation in a confident way.

Negotiate — when it doesn't look like you're going to get the result you were wanting, be flexible. Negotiate to find a happy middle ground for both parties.

Many adolescents don't ask for something, but rather make demands, ask in a wavering way that is confusing, or don't ask at all and do what they want.

Interpersonal effectiveness skills are not only helpful for those struggling with borderline personality disorder and attachment issues, but for anyone who wants to strengthen their relationships with those around them.

We invite you to call 866.754.4807 to learn more about how interpersonal effectiveness can help your family.