Using DBT to Help You Get Your Needs Met

By Rosie Barton, LMSW

Wouldn’t it be nice if other people always knew exactly what we wanted and needed from them? Unfortunately that’s not the reality that we all live in, though it’s a near universal experience to struggle with the disappointment that comes when someone doesn’t support us in the way we hoped or when we don’t get the response that we desired. In my work as a therapist, I might hear how someone’s boyfriend let them down because he tried to problem-solve for them, rather than just listen with empathy to what they were going through. Or I’ve heard a college student angry and hurt by a parent who never thinks to call and check in on him, or conversely exasperation toward a parent who calls non-stop throughout the day.

The first thing I want to note in all of these situations is that the anger, hurt, disappointment, and exasperation are all real. Complex feelings arise from our interpersonal relationships because humans, after all, are messy and complex themselves. A large focus in my therapeutic work is to help my clients first acknowledge and accept these emotions, and then identify ways they might better get their needs met by the other people in their lives. This doesn’t mean that they never get let down or disappointed, but they have a much greater chance at having successful relationships when they can effectively communicate what they want. 

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), effective communication skills are used to help people have healthier interpersonal relationships. One skill that I particularly like to teach uses the acronym DEARMAN to help clients remember each component. I’ll use the example of the college student whose mother calls incessantly to demonstrate how DEARMAN works to express a need or want in a healthy way. 


DESCRIBE the situation in a clear and simple way: “You call me multiple times a day.”

EXPRESS what you would like:  “and I’d like to figure out a way we can remain connected without so many phone calls.” 

ASSERT why this is important to you in a way that is respectful: “I’m trying to adjust to life at college and I want to focus on doing well in school, making friends, and joining a new club.” 

REINFORCE to help the person understand why they should meet your request and what might be in it for them: “I love getting to share what’s going on in my life and I promise to set aside time every Sunday to call you and fill you in.” 

MINDFUL is used to remind you to stay in the present moment during the interaction. Try not to get distracted by thinking about all the work you have to get done after the call is over. 

APPEAR CONFIDENT. Regardless of how nervous or uncomfortable you might feel inside, it’s important to appear confident, making the other person more likely to be receptive of the request. 

NEGOTIATE. An important thing to remember is that you might not always get exactly what you want. Maybe mom won’t be able to respect your desire for a weekly phone call, but you might be able to compromise with a schedule that works for both of you. 

By learning to practice skills like DEARMAN, it’s possible to move away from the expectation that others should automatically know what you want and need, and instead communicate your needs in a respectful and confident way, opening you up to healthier relationships with others and a stronger sense of self.

Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy LCSW. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb