DBT Video Text: How Skills

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And now we’re going to do the ‘how’ skills. And the how skills have everything to do with how do you observe, how do you describe, and how do you participate. And there are three ‘how’ skills: non-judgmentally, one mindfully, and effectively.


What are you doing when you are judging something? Judging is adding something to what you observe. It’s when you observe a fact and then you add an evaluation. And the evaluation that you’re adding, in one way or the other, is good or bad. That’s the bottom line. That’s really all it is. It’s actually pretty easy idea and it’s a really hard one to get.

Let’s talk about the difference between observing and describing, and observing and judging. So we’ll take lying. What’s lying? Lying is when a person says something that’s not true. On purpose. Ok. Saying something not true. On purpose.

‘So, Mary said something not true on purpose and she’s bad. Ah, what a liar!’ ‘Mary said something not true on purpose and well, it had a lot of consequences. People don’t trust her anymore. Some people who believed her made decisions that turned out to really hurt them. Lying had painful consequences.’

Now, notice. In one, I was saying lying is bad so that’s ‘lying’ that’s an observation; ‘bad’ that’s a judgment. And the other, I said ‘lying’ that’s an observation. And then what did I do? Instead of judging, I described the consequences. 

Judging actually is a shorthand way to state consequences. And if the consequences are negative, painful, destructive, disliked, we call it ‘bad’. If the consequences are positive, lead to enhanced welfare, improve the happiness of one and all, we call it ‘good’.

So judging is a shorthand. Therefore judging is really needed some of the time. Sometimes we need a shorthand. When do you need a shorthand? Well, I’m a teacher. I give a shorthand by giving A, B, C, or D.  A is better than B. B is better than C. C is better than D.  I get paid to judge.

If you go to the fish market, and you go to buy fish, and you pick it up and you say ‘Is this still good?’ And the dealer smells it and say’s ‘No, it’s not good.’ What’s he doing? He’s evaluating it, but what’s he evaluating? Actually it’s a shorthand for ‘No, this has germs; this is old; this could make you sick; this is not safe.’ All of which are consequences. However, my guess is you’d just as soon not have the fish guy say all that stuff. You’d just like him to say ‘No, it’s bad. Don’t buy it.’

DBT Mindfulness: Fish displayed at a market

Have you ever noticed that lots of times we just forget that judging’s shorthand? Have you noticed that? We go around making statements about people who are either good or they’re bad; they’re stupid or they’re smart; or they’re this or they’re that. And we forget that it’s a shorthand, we start thinking those are real qualities of the person. We start acting like… we start forgetting that we’re describing the consequences of their behavior and act like we’re describing characteristics of the person. ‘That person is good.’ ‘That person is bad.’ 

A lot of us judge ourselves. And a lot of us judge others. And some of us do both. Which are you?  Do you mostly judge yourself; mostly judge others? Or are you an equal opportunity player; you do both?

There are two problems with judging. The first one is that when you’re judging something, if you forget that you’re doing a shorthand, you don’t react to what other people are doing or what you’re doing. You start reacting to your own thoughts about what they’re doing. It’s kind of like you think you’re reacting to what someone else is doing and you’re really reacting to your own judgments. Have you ever noticed how people do that? I’ll bet people do that to you. And my guess is that you do it to other people some of the time.

So that’s the first problem – you’re just inaccurate. You’re responding to things that might not even be happening. 

And the second problem is, is judgments cause unending problem emotions. Have you ever noticed that? It’s really hard to be angry at someone without judging them. It’s hard to be angry at yourself without judging yourself. It’s almost impossible to get rid of shame if you don’t reduce the amount of judgments that you make about yourself.

So, there are two reasons. Reason one, it’s hard to react to the real world as it really is when you are reacting to judgments. It’s a little bit like reacting to interpretations instead of the facts. And second, it causes no end of emotional pain. It’s hard to reduce negative emotions without reducing judgments. Ok, got it? 

Well, now the question is… the 64 thousand dollar question is how in the world are you going to change judgments? This can be extremely difficult. That’s the bad news. The fabulous news, you can do it. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I’ve worked with who are really judgmental – judge, judge, judge, judge, judge – that have gotten it to go down. It can take some time, but there are a lot of things that are going to take you more time than this.

So I’m going to go through the steps. If you really want to get your judgments down, and you follow these steps, this will work.

Well the first step is you have to decide what is actually important to you to reduce your judging. It’s going to be hard to do this if you don’t want to. So it’s probably not going to work if you’re stopping judging because someone else told you to do it. Someone else wants you to do it or other people are being critical of you. So you need to sit back and just say to yourself ‘Do I or don’t I? What do I have to gain?’ Now I’m going to assume for the moment that you have a lot to gain by being less judgmental. 

The next step is to start paying attention to your own judgments. What you want to do is observe, notice, and then describe. By describe, I mean just label. You want to notice judgmental thoughts, judgmental actions, judgmental tones of voice. 

Judgments can be hard to recognize. Listen to this: ‘Well, I went into this room, had yellow walls and a green carpet.’ Ok. Now listen to this: “Well! I went into this room and it had yellow walls and a green carpet!’ Ok. See the difference? You notice that in the second one, didn’t that sound judgmental? What do you think? Do you think I like the yellow walls with the green carpet? No. In the first one, no judgment, it’s a description. Second one, judgment.

So you’ve got to watch. You’ve got to watch for your voice tone and the content because the ‘…went in this room it had yellow walls!’ is the same thing as saying ‘I went in this room, it had yellow walls. And uck, uck, uck, they were terrible. Who’s that decorator?’  Alright.

So the first thing you do is notice. Now what you want to do the first time is you want to notice them and you want to count them. Especially if you judge a lot. You want to count them and you want to count them each day. So how would you do that? Well, it kind of depends on whether you judge a lot or you don’t judge a lot.

But if you’re a person who judges a lot, and a lot of people are, then you’re going to have to find a way to remember how many judgments you’ve made during the day. What I tell the people I work with to do is to go and buy a counter. You can go to any sporting goods store and buy a counter. And you put that on your belt or you put it in your pocket or you carry it with you someway. And then, all day long, every time you judge or you find yourself being judgmental, you just click it. At the end of the day, you look at the number, write it down and you’ve got it for the day. 

It’ll be interesting to see how many you have. I’ve had people who thought they had loads of judgments when they had seven or eight. And, I’ve had people who’ve had over a hundred a day. I had one person, she had so many she couldn’t count them. So she used to just count for an hour out of the day. She said she was judging all day long. So, that’s step one: count.

Now what you want to do is write it down every night. So take a week out of your life and say ‘I’m going to watch my judgments every day for a week.’ It’s very interesting. If you want a behavior to go down, you want to do something less, and you start counting it, just the very fact that you’re counting it almost always makes it go down. It’s really interesting but that’s just the way it works. 

Now I have to tell you one more really important thing. If you’ve decided that you want to stop judging, or at least reduce it, then you start noticing when you’re judging, you’re going to want to remember: don’t judge the judging. 

If you judge your judging, you’ll have to click that counter again. You don’t want to do that. That would double your number of judgments in the day. So, don’t judge your judging. 

Simply take a judgment and replace it with a consequence. That’s the best way to re-frame it. And know the difference between a judgment and a fact. 

And not decide that everything that is negative is a judgment. Lots of times we think people are judging us if they say ‘I don’t like your lipstick’ or ‘I don’t like your hair’ Your mother may say ‘I wish you’d wear skirts.’ You think she’s judging you. She may be of course, but it’s possible she just wishes that. 

Now some people think that the best way to re-frame a judgment is just to turn a negative into a positive. You’re not bad, you’re good. We often think that when we’re thinking about ourselves. I’m bad, so I say, ‘Oh, I should have affirming beliefs, positive self views. So I’ll change the negative to the positive.’

Now I’ve got to tell you that’s very dangerous. The reason it’s dangerous? If you can be positive then you can be negative. The trick?  Skip both. Simply say ‘I am. Neither good nor bad.’ That’s the whole idea of being nonjudgmental is to develop the capacity and the habit of seeing the world as it is, describing it as it is, and honestly stating your values. Having values is not being judgmental.


What’s the second mindfulness skill? One-mindfully. One-mindfulness is the opposite of mindless. 

So ask yourself, how often do you do things mindlessly? What do I mean by that? Well, I mean, how often do you do things in an automatic way, sort of a non-conscious, automatic way without thinking about what you’re doing? For example, have you ever been driving somewhere where you were the car driver, and then you got where you going but you had no idea how you got there? You were thinking about home, or what you were going to do when you got home or what you were going to do when you got somewhere? You were talking to someone else? In other words, you were doing everything else including driving? In other words, you were doing five things plus driving? That’s the opposite of one mindful. 

DBT Mindfulness: A view of traffic from the back of a car looking out of the front windshield

Being one mindful is also the opposite of multitasking. Most of the time when I start trying to teach mindfulness skills, especially to professionals, they say ‘Ok, look, I can do it but I’ve got to do two things at once. It’s the only way I can be efficient. I… I’ll never get anything done. You can’t ask me to do that. I’ll do everything else but not this.’ That’s a very typical response. Are you saying the same thing? 

What you may not know is that people have actually done research on this. People have gotten subjects to come into research and then in the research they give them a number of tasks to be done. And they ask one group of people to do everything mindfully. And they ask another group of people to try to get everything done as quickly as possible, multi-tasking. And then they look to see who’s the most efficient. Who do you think it is? It’s the person who does it one-mindfully.

Now you may be thinking ‘Well, the reason why multi-tasking was inefficient in that research is because they had subjects doing three things, all of which needed their attention. But how about when I have a lot of things to do and only some of the things need my attention. Like why in the world would I pay attention to washing the dishes when I could be solving some problem in my mind. Why not wash dishes and think about my problems?’ Or ‘I don’t need to pay attention to driving. I get home anyway, so what’s the point? I can have a really important conversation with someone or I can listen to music or I can do other things. So it’s really ridiculous.’ 

Now that may be true. So what’s the point of one mindfulness in those situations? The real question to ask yourself is, how full do you want to live life? How much are you willing to miss in your very own life? One-mindfulness has to do with not missing your own life. 

What is one-mindfulness? Well, it’s actually very simple. It really is ‘one thing at a time’. If you’re eating, just eat. If you’re talking, just talk. If you’re worrying, just worry. Throw your mind into what you’re doing and do that one thing.

So the idea of this skill, one-mindfully, is to one-mindfully observe, one-mindfully describe, one-mindfully participate. When you’re observing, only observe. When you’re describing, only describe. And when you’re participating, throw yourself in; just participate totally.

Now doing one thing at a time can actually be difficult. One thing that makes it hard, is just not liking the current moment that you are in. Often when we don’t like what’s going on now, or we don’t like doing what we’re doing, we don’t like doing one thing, we either start doing something else at the same time or we start thinking about something else. So that’s one thing that makes it really hard. 

The second thing that makes it really hard is when the past and the future get in the way.  That’s a big one. Have you ever noticed how worrying about the past or thinking about the future can really interfere with the present?

I had a client who had a lot of chronic pain. She had this terrible disorder that just gave her so much physical pain  I… it was just agony. She would call me sometimes on the telephone just to tell me how awful it was and it would be really interesting. She would be saying things like ‘Oh, it hurts! It’s just been going on so long!  It’s never going to end!’  I would say ‘Listen, you’ve go so much pain in the present – you’ve got plenty of suffering. You’ve got enough suffering without having to suffer everything from the past and everything from the future. You’ve got enough in the present. Keep your mind in the present, this one second.’

We only have to live this one second, so if you’ve got to suffer it makes a lot more sense, suffer this moment. Just one moment; just this moment. 

I’ll give you an example. So imagine you’re walking somewhere. So you’re just walking. So imagine that. Doing nothing else. You’re not doing one other thing. Just walking. Now let’s add on to it. You’re walking down an aisle to go up some stairs to a podium to get your award. We’ll compare that to walking to the bathroom. And we’ll compare that to… what if you were walking to the guillotine? You’re going to get your head chopped off.

Do you know almost everybody in those situations would feel different while they’re walking. The person walking to get an award, how do you think they might feel?  Happy?  The person walking to the bathroom, may be neutral. The person walking to the guillotine, probably miserable. The facts of the matter are though, what’s the difference? You’re not at the guillotine yet, you’re just walking. You’re not getting your award yet, you’re just walking. 

That’s the idea. The idea is do one thing and throw your whole mind into the one thing. Walking is walking. Eating is eating. What are you doing now? Watching. Watching and listening. That’s all you’re doing now. Not one other thing.

So why practice this? I’m going to give you three reasons. The first is more efficient. Doing one task at a time is more efficient than multi-tasking. So that’s a good reason. 

The second reason is it allows you to live life to the fullest. If you’re living life in the moment, you experience and can be aware of your entire life. You don’t miss your life. You don’t miss what’s going on. If you’ve got children, you live your children growing up.

The third reason is that life has enough suffering in the moment. If you practice one mindfulness, you just suffer the moment. And suffering just the moment beats out suffering the future, the past, and the moment. So in effect, it reduces your suffering.


We’ve gone through two of the ‘hows’.  Non-judgmentally.  One-mindfully. And we have one more. Effectively. 

Acting effectively means doing what works. You have to ask yourself, ‘Works for what?’ So you have to know your goals. You actually have to think through what is it that you really want? It’s going to be hard to figure out whether you’re doing what works if you don’t even know what you want. So you have to do that. 

The next thing that you have to do though, is figure out what do I have to do?  In other words, you have to think through what’s needed, what’s necessary to act effectively. That means that you have to took at what’s actually going on. Not only do you know what you want, but you have to figure out what’s really needed. What’s needed in this situation?

So you have to pay attention to the situation and respond to what’s really going on. You have to use your observing and describing skills.

So what gets in the way of being effective? Sometimes we just decide that’s its more important to be right than to get what we want.

Have you ever noticed sometimes how people driving in the outside lane on the highway come up and get right behind other people who are driving slow? Either they’re driving exactly the speed limit or even slower sometimes. Then you notice, what does the car do?  They start tailgating the driver. Have you ever had that happen to you? Now, ask yourself, if someone is tailgating you, what do you think they want? They want to go faster, right?  Have you ever noticed that sometimes that happens and that person could just go right over to the right-hand lane. They could just move right over and pass you by? They could just pass the slow driver by, but they don’t. What do they do? They tailgate. 

Is that effective? It is sooner or later. Most of the time people will get over and the person gets to go on. But, I’m sure you’ve seen it cause I have, there are times when that actually doesn’t work. Sooner or later they have to go and pass them. That’s an example of wanting to be right instead of wanting to be effective.

Alright. What’s the next thing that gets in your way. Believing it’s not fair that you should have to put all this effort into being effective. Generally what gets in your way here is when you’re very clear what you want and you think that you should not have to do anything to get it.

I’ll give you an example. How about your birthday. You may be a person like a lot of other people who want to have your birthday remembered. But, you don’t think it’s fair that you should have to go around telling other people that your birthday is coming, leaving hints. So what happens? People don’t remember your birthday. Then you get hurt. Your day goes downhill. Then you get hurt. Now, what’s effective? How could you be effective? Remind them that your birthday is coming. 

DBT Mindfulness: A small chocolate cake sits on a table among party hats. A 'happy birthday' banner is pinned above.

Sometimes what gets in the way is you’re just not thinking about what’s important. You’re not focusing in on your most important goals. 

Think about it. When your goals are just right in your face, you can’t miss them. Usually, you’re willing to be effective.

I’ll give you an example. Imagine that you’re in a bank. While you’re in there, you’re just talking to the teller. A bank robber comes in. And the bank robber yells ‘Down on the floor!’ What do you think you would do? Would you say, ‘Hey, against the rules. Not doing it.  You’re not even supposed to be in here. I’m not doing that. Mmmm, I don’t think so.’ What do you think you’d do? You’d probably fall flat on your face. Why? It’d be hard to miss that your life is in danger. It’s pretty obvious that your life is in danger. That’s why you’d do it. Not only that but it’s a pretty important goal. 

So when it’s really important and it’s really obvious, most of us are willing to play by the rules. We’re willing to be effective.

Now lots of times in life the consequences of being right instead of effective aren’t so extreme. We may have something to lose but we don’t have a lot to lose. The problem is, is if you’re always focused on being right, what happens to you over the long haul? If you look over the years of your life, what happens? Being right costs a lot. You lose a little bit now, a little bit tomorrow, a little bit the next day. And all of a sudden you may have lost a lot of things really important to you. 

So, pay attention. Is this important to you. Are you a person who would rather be right than get what you want? If that’s true, think about it. You may want to practice effectiveness. 

Why practice doing things effectively? There’s only one answer. It’s a really simple one. It works.