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Conflict at Work: From Problem to Productivity Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills

Are you the sort of person who finds yourself reacting emotionally to other people? Or do you tend to want to please others, taking on extra responsibility without getting your own needs met?

If you have ever had your opinion ignored by your supervisor, had a co-worker consistently expect your assistance without reciprocating, blown up after tolerating a colleagues annoying habit too long or been expected to act on conflicting directives you know that relationships are as much a part of the world of work as they are our personal lives. In fact, our relationships at work may be as big a factor in our success or failure as our skills and knowledge of our job.

Too often we enter an interpersonal situation with pent up emotion and no clear idea of what we want to achieve. Effectively navigating work relationships requires that we first know our goals in the situation. It's important to know not only what specific results you want to achieve, but also how you want the other person to feel about you after the interaction and how you want to feel about yourself.

Knowing what you want in any given situation is complicated enough. Actually carrying out a plan for dealing with interpersonal conflict, especially in a work situation where the consequences may be quite important, can be extremely difficult. The Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills Training Module in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was designed teach people how to navigate through complicated interpersonal situations without avoidance of conflict or intense confrontation. At work, the goal of these skills is to use interpersonal problem-solving and assertiveness skills to change the environment and meet your goals.

First, you must consider how strongly to make your case. If you want your opinion taken seriously by a supervisor, is it best to ask firmly and insist on your point-of-view? Ask tentatively, but accept no? Or is this a situation where you merely want to hint at what you want. DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness skills outline how to assess factors such as your priorities, your long vs. short term needs, self-respect issues and reciprocity in order to choose an appropriate course of action.

Once you have determined your goals and how strongly to make your case, you chose to focus on one of three primary interpersonal skills. The first skill gives specific steps on how to stand up for yourself and be taken seriously, request others to do something so that they do it, refuse unwanted requests, resolve conflict, and get your opinion taken seriously. The second skill focuses on the ability to maintain and improve relationships while obtaining your objectives. When this skill works, you get what you want and the person likes or respects you even more than before. The third skill focuses on maintaining your sense of self respect while interacting with others. It involves acting with personal integrity and in a way that makes you feel capable.

There is no one way to resolve conflict in a work environment and no matter how skillfully you act, not every conflict is within your control to resolve. However DBT skills are useful particularly for those people who experience intense emotions at work and either find themselves in frequent confrontations or putting their own needs aside to please other people.


Linehann M. M. (1993). Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press.

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