From Overcoming Anxiety: From Short-Term Fixes to Long-Term Recovery
Like Mary, Robert needed to learn how to be more assertive so he would have more healthy boundaries. The only difference was that while Mary had weak boundaries that needed to be strengthened, Robert’s boundaries were rigid and needed to be loosened. After presenting to him the concept of rights, as described in chapter 10, we moved on to a simple but powerful assertive skill that I call D.E.R. scripts.
The concept of D.E.R. scripts is easy to remember and an effective way of making your needs known to another. The letters represent the following:
Describe the problem.
Express your thoughts or feelings.
Request what you want.
The above directives are put together into a short three-to-five-sentence paragraph or script that you recite to the person with whom you are in conflict. It is important to phrase your sentences in what is commonly referred to as I messages, statements that tell the listener what you see, think, feel, or want in an objective manner that does not assign blame or put the listener down. (A statement that assigns blame or puts the listener down is often referred to as a you message.) Here is the script Robert developed to tell his wife what was bothering him:
Describe: “Because I’m working a swing shift and you’re working days, we don’t spend much time together. The time we are spending together is mostly spent arguing about bills or things that need to be done.”
Express: “I’m feeling lonely and that you no longer care about me.”
Request: “I’d like to figure out a way where we can spend some quality time together and do something enjoyable.”
The above script may look simple, but it took about thirty minutes to develop. The first and most difficult part of a D.E.R. script is identifying what you want, the “request” at the end of the script. When I first asked Robert what he wanted to change in his marriage, he listed a number of things that he wanted his wife to stop doing such as less arguing and less criticism. This is typical. But a good D.E.R. script focuses on what you want someone to do rather than on what you want stopped. I continued to pursue this with Robert. At first, because he was so used to focusing on problems rather than on solutions, he found it difficult to identify exactly what it was that he wanted.
However, after some discussion, he realized that he wanted the companionship that was present when he had first met his wife.
Once you have clearly identified what you want, the rest is usually fairly easy. The only area where you need to exercise caution is in your description. The two basic rules for the description are (1) just state the facts and, (2) keep it short. The purpose of the description is to present a problem that you are having in as succinct a manner as possible. The most common mistake people make is using “you” messages that involve negative labels or your “analysis” of the other person’s motives or personality. Here is an example of a poor description that has both of these mistakes:
Since I’ve been working the swing shift you seem to be getting more and more unreasonable and going into your own little world. You never help with anything and you don’t care about anything I’m involved with.
The above was actually Robert’s first attempt at creating a D.E.R. script. Compare it with the one we eventually developed at the beginning of this article. Notice how Robert’s first attempt is accusing and blaming. Had he said this to her, his spouse would probably have become defensive and begun to fight back. In contrast, the description that was eventually developed used “I messages” and invited Robert’s spouse to participate in a problem-solving discussion.
Once you have made your request through a D.E.R. script, you need to be able to switch gears and listen to the other person. As you listen, try to identify that person’s needs. Keep in mind that your goal is to find a way to meet both of your needs as much as is possible.
Using the D.E.R. approach, Robert was able to express himself effectively to his wife. During the following weeks, he was able to say the things he had been “choking back” and work out several issues that had been major sources of tension in his marriage. The result was that he and his wife were able to achieve a deeper level of intimacy and Robert’s symptoms again subsided.