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Can Dialectical Behavior Therapy Help You Be a Better Leader
Mar 29, 2018

Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 6 min.


Growing up my dad introduced me to a lot of interesting people. Theologians, psychologists, monks, reiki healers…you get the idea. And I was fortunate enough to spend time with each of them, learning more about their work and the path that they were on. This early exposure to different tools and ways of living has given me a wide array of skills that help me be the type of workplace leader that I want to be. Grounded, generous and thoughtful. One tool that I have used every day since I learned it as a young person was Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Introduced to me by a therapist who was friends with my Dad, I’ve used DBT to help me be (1) a more present manager (2) a more supportive colleague and (3) a better friend and partner.


The essence of dialectical behavior therapy is that it is a toolset, a framework to help you change behaviors that are not helping you. Developed in the late 1980’s by Dr. Marsha Linehan, DBT is most commonly used clinically (although not exclusively) to treat individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder.

DBT focuses on four behavior change techniques:

Mindfulness: the practice of being fully aware and present in this one moment

Distress Tolerance: how to tolerate pain in difficult situations, not change it

Interpersonal Effectiveness: how to ask for what you want and say no while maintaining self-respect and relationships with others

Emotion Regulation: how to change emotions that you want to change

Despite its original deployment in the field of mental health, DBT is a way to address your emotions as a leader - that can give you the edge you need to take your leadership to the next level.


DBT includes specific skills and cognitive cues to help you apply the principles in your everyday life. Here are a few to get you started:

Emotional Regulation

Are you the type of person who gets angry? Trick question, we all get angry. But how do we deal with anger and frustration in a way that allows us to feel in control. Rather than boiling over? According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, self-regulation is a critical tool for leaders. It can help you to improve your management by enabling you to stay centered so that you can make choices about which emotions to engage. The DBT cue to bolster your ability to regulate your emotions is “P.L.E.A.S.E”:

P & L Treat Physical Illness - Don’t put off going to the doctor. As busy professionals in the middle of building our careers, it can be easy to shrug off aches, pains and illness. But these health matters linger in the background impacting your ability to remain in charge of your feelings. Go make that doctor’s appointment today!

Eating - Sometimes I will find myself at 3pm wondering why I’m having trouble paying attention in a meeting, and then I realize that I never had lunch. Taking the time to each breakfast, lunch, dinner and a couple of snacks can work wonders for your mental well-being.

Avoid Altering Drugs - This is simple enough - drinking and ingesting any mood altering substance can wreak havoc on your emotional landscape. And while you aren’t drinking a Manhattan in the middle of the day, I’m sure you’re eating sugar when you’re stressed and looking for a boost. Be careful!

Sleep - Last month a study quoted in Fast Company, showed that 6 hours of sleep is useless. If you’re having trouble sleeping - take yourself to a doctor. Find out why and then head to bed. Seven hours of shut eye in the era of “busyness” will change your life, I promise. I get about 7.5 hours a night and it plays a significant role in my productivity.

Exercise - I’ve written about this before - while exercise can help make sure that your clothes fit - it more importantly helps to counteract the stress of everyday living. Not able to find a gym? Find a workout video, go for a walk. The point is - keep moving.

Distress Tolerance

You know how sometimes you find yourself in the middle of a conversation wishing that you could get out of it? Or arriving at work at 9am and finding yourself dreading the next 8 hours for whatever reason? When you’re emotionally uncomfortable, it’s common to rush through things. And I don’t know about you, but when I rush I make mistakes. Both typos and relationship management mistakes. But in DBT the framework for handling this discomfort is to A.C.C.E.P.T.(S) it. How?

Activities - Stay busy. Don’t let your feelings about the day stop you from getting your job done. Attack your to do list with moxie, go out for lunch, water your desk plant. Basically, get out of your head.

Contributing - Feeling sullen? Don’t be quiet. Speak up in a meeting. Offer to help a co-worker. Find ways to be a value add despite your emotions.

Comparisons - I remember one year I cried after a performance evaluation. When I got home and told the story to my best friend she asked me if it was worth crying about. Had anyone passed away? Was I getting fired? The answer to both was no. Moving forward, I take the time to compare the scenario I find myself in, to a past experience and it’s helped me to keep my emotional reactions at the appropriate scale.

Emotions - use opposite. - Feeling sad? Watch a funny cat video on YouTube. Feeling angry? Listen to a Top 40 Pop Hit. The goal is to adjust your emotional state by engaging in activities that foster the opposite emotion.

Pushing Away - If no matter what you try, your emotions about a situation are too hard to let go of, as a last resort consider building an imaginary wall between you and your feelings. It’s ok to occasionally put an emotion to the side, as long as you come back to it later.

Thoughts - Taking control of your thoughts can be hardest thing to do. Especially when you’re navel gazing. Want to really be in charge of your mind? Do something, listen to a podcast, read the morning paper, ask your colleague a question in person rather than send an email.

Sensations - The mind/body connection is a powerful one. And your senses can be a great asset in aiding your efforts to increase your distress tolerance skills. Put on some lotion, smell a lavender satchel (I used to keep one in my desk drawer - and it helped a ton!), sit in a nearby park and feel the breeze on your skin. Get in your body! It’s free!

Interpersonal Effectiveness

We all want to be effective at work and our ability to do so is connected to how we build relationships with our co-workers. No matter how you’re feeling keep G.I.V.E. in mind when interacting with anyone from work.

Gentle - Be gentle, use language that is kind and thoughtful. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone’s bad day energy you know how unpleasant it is. And how it has a long term impact on how you view that person. Practice gentleness even when you’re livid, nothing says leadership like being graceful and gracious.

Interested - Act interested, being a good listener comes down to expressing interest in what the other person is saying. When having a conversation don’t simply wait to talk, ensure that your body language, tone of voice and questions indicate a sincere desire to understand and engage.

Validate - When a colleague comes to you with a challenge or tells you that they can’t get you what you need on time, validate their concerns before asking them for anything. This pause to acknowledge someone else’s struggle or pain point creates space for compassion at work.

Easy Manner - Rather than make someone feel guilty about their attitude - try telling a joke. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a bit more lighthearted and optimistic at work? The change starts with you.

by Simone N. Sneed For The Huffington Post

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