Being Mindful: Using What and How Skills

Mindfulness is the quality or state of being aware or conscious of something. We often think of mindfulness in terms of meditation and breathing exercises—skills that can decrease distress and promote emotional regulation. While these skills are certainly useful, the core purpose of practicing mindfulness is to increase our ability to non-judgmentally observe the present moment, including our emotions and thoughts, without reacting to them. The question is how do we incorporate mindfulness in our daily lives?

WHAT and HOW Skills
In dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), the act of practicing mindfulness is taught through WHAT and HOW skills. The purpose of the WHAT skills is to help focus your attention on the present moment. The HOW skills tell us how to be in the present moment or HOW to do the WHAT skills.

The DBT “What Skills” include:

  • OBSERVE: Observing is about noticing what is going on both internally and externally in the present moment. You can observe your external environment with your 5 senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound).
  • DESCRIBE: Describing builds upon the skill of observing. It is about putting words to our experience (what is observed). The key to describing is to focus on the facts versus your interpretations or opinions about what is observed. In other words, stick to the “who, what, where, and when.”
  • PARTICIPATE: Participating is about engaging in the present moment. The key to participating mindfully is to enter fully into an activity without self-consciousness. 

The DBT “How Skills” include doing the above What Skills in the following ways:

  • Non-Judgmentally: observing and describing based solely on facts. Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions.
  • One mindfully: the quality of focusing on one thing at a time. It is the opposite of multitasking.
  • Effectively: doing what works

Utilizing the WHAT and HOW skills for being mindful allows us to maximize wise-minded thinking and overall effectiveness of mindfulness by acknowledging our emotions while also focusing on the facts of the situation to avoid bias based on emotion or experience.  To learn more about this process, see: 


Celes Smith, MSSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker