DEAR MAN is an approach to communication taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DEAR MAN helps you ask for what you want in a way that’s more likely to get results.
Do you want to ask someone for something, but you’re worried that it will damage your relationship? Or maybe you’re hoping someone will just pick up on the hints you’ve been dropping, because you’re unsure how to tell them what you want? If so, you might need “DEAR MAN”!
“DEAR MAN” is a set of skills from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that can help you communicate your needs effectively, while allowing you to maintain your relationships. Although DEAR MAN isn’t a magic wand that gets you exactly what you want, it does increase your chances of getting others to agree to your requests or boundaries.
Describe the situation in clear, simple terms. Stick to the objective facts and keep it short. Your emotions might be running high, but try not to bring in your feelings or judgments at this point. Instead, you can imagine how an impartial person would concisely report the facts of the situation.
This step is important so that you and the other person can be on the same page. Vague statements can easily lead to misinterpretation. Also, sharing this small agreement on the basic facts of the situation is a stepping stone towards a larger agreement about what to do about it.
For example, let’s say your roommate, sibling, partner or child hasn’t done their chore. The “describe” step might sound like this:
I noticed that the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned and you told me you would clean it a week ago.
Clearly state your emotions or beliefs. The most effective way to do this is often by using “I” statements. That way, the other person is less likely to be defensive. Imagine if someone said to you, “You made me sad” instead of “I felt sad when you did that.” Compared to the “I” statement, the “You” statement can more easily lead to an argument if the other person feels blamed.
The reason to express your feelings openly and clearly is that you can’t assume that the other person already knows how you feel. Doing this step helps other people understand why you’re making your request.
I felt disappointed when I saw that it was still dirty because our friends are coming over tomorrow. I’m worried that they’ll be grossed out or feel uncomfortable.
Clearly ask the other person for what you want. Or, depending on the situation, firmly tell the other person “No,” or say what you don’t want them to do. This step doesn’t ask you to be aggressive, it just asks you to be direct in making a request so that there’s little room for misinterpretation.
Remember: the other person can’t read your mind, and you can’t assume that they’ll just figure out what you want. This step might feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to asserting yourself. But by not beating around the bush, you’re actually helping the other person to support you!
As an example, below is a clear request instead of a demand (e.g., “clean it right now!”) or an indirect request (e.g., “it would be really great if the bathroom were clean”).
Can you please clean the bathroom now?
Reinforce, or reward, the positive outcome. The other person is more likely to say yes if you give them reasons to grant your request. Explain how they can actually benefit from giving you what you want.
The reward can be as simple as gratitude or appreciation, or a better relationship between the two of you. You can acknowledge that your relationship is important to you too. For example:
I’d really appreciate it. I understand that the last thing you’d want is for us to keep squabbling about chores, and it’s the last thing I want, too! And if we have a clean space, maybe our friends would come to our home more often — I know you sometimes get annoyed by having to drive all the way to their place.
Be mindful of keeping the focus on your goals. It’s easy to get distracted, especially if the other person tries to divert you or becomes defensive or hostile. Don’t take the bait! Just try to calmly stay on track, even if that means you sound like a “broken record.” If the conversation goes off topic or becomes more heated, it will be much harder to get what you want.
I just want to say again that I’d really appreciate it if you would clean the bathroom.
Use confident tone of voice and body language. Even if you might be nervous on the inside, that doesn’t mean you have to whisper, stare at the floor, or sound unsure. Try to keep your head up, speak clearly and loudly, and stand tall.
Appearing self-assured signals to the other person that your request is reasonable and should be doable. If you act like you don’t know what you want, or like you don’t deserve it, the other person is more likely to turn your request down. For this step, it’s okay to fake it ’til you make it!
Be open to negotiation. Even if you effectively communicate your wants, you can’t always get your way. No one can! But you could still get part of your way. You can offer alternative solutions, or listen to what the other person has to say about any other possible resolution they see. Ignoring their needs isn’t a good idea if you want to maintain a healthy relationship with them. Be flexible and willing to reduce your request if you have to. Think about what will be practical for the both of you to do.
I would really love a clean bathroom by tomorrow. At the same time, you seem like you really don’t want to clean it. So what should we do? How can we meet each other halfway? Can you clean just the toilet and sink today, then do the floor and shower tomorrow? Alternatively, I can help with the sink if you can do the rest. Or, well, I’m willing to clean the bathroom this time if you’re willing to do one of the other chores, like cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes.
And if they agree to your request — hooray! You can go back to the “Reinforce” step and express how thankful you are.
What if some of this seems counter to my culture?
Some of the steps above might not exactly fit in with how people in your family or your culture usually operate. After all, DEAR MAN was developed in a Western cultural framework, which emphasizes self-assertion as a way to foster direct communication. However, certain cultures prioritize avoiding disagreement over self-assertion. If you’re from one of these cultures, communication styles that are more direct or confrontational might be perceived as disrespectful or lacking in understanding. Even your body language — like your eye contact or how much you show your emotions on your face — can be interpreted differently depending on the culture of the person you’re speaking to. So it’s always a good idea to keep in mind how the cultural background of the person you’re speaking to might influence how they perceive direct assertiveness.
If some of the DEAR MAN steps don’t jive with your culture’s communication style, that’s okay! You can still see if there are steps that you can do, or steps you can modify, to make the DEAR MAN method work well for you. For example, you might adjust how much you maintain eye contact (while “Appearing confident”), or you might mention avoiding conflict as a potential reward (while “Reinforcing”).
DEAR MAN can help you keep your relationships while preventing a buildup of resentment, hurt feelings, or unfulfilled needs. It’s just one set of many DBT tools that you can learn to improve your communication skills and your relationships. If you’re curious about others, you can check out our other DBT skills pages. If you think that personalized therapy incorporating DBT skills could benefit you, feel free to contact us to explore your options.
Skills described above based on those presented in Marsha M. Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd ed. (2015), Guilford Press, New York.