4D ‘What’ skills

There are 6 specific mindfulness skills used in DBT and these are broken down into:

3 ‘What’ skills

‘What’ you do to practice mindfulness

‘How’ you practice mindfulness effectively

On this page we will be focusing on mindfulness ‘What’ skills; you can find out more about mindfulness ‘How’ skills here.


So, what are the 3 mindfulness ‘What’ skills?


To observe is to notice what you are experiencing here and now, notice it with all of your awareness, by:

  • paying attention to the events that are taking place, without getting caught in them and without reacting to them
  • notice the emotions you are feeling and thoughts you are having, without getting caught in them and without reacting to them
  • noticing your experience with all of your five senses, through your eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue
  • focus your attention on what it is you are experiencing, be aware of other thoughts that might distract you, but don’t get stuck on these thoughts; see these thoughts on clouds, notice them, but let them float past you, then return your attention to what it is you are experiencing.


Put words on the experience you are observing; give labels to behaviours and situations. Describe to yourself what is happening, without getting caught up in it.

“I am walking. The sky is getting dark. It is very quiet. The ground feels rough under my feet”.

In this way, describing helps you to stay in the moment, providing you with a greater understanding of what is happening.

You can also use the describing skill to label the thoughts and emotions you are feeling, without getting caught up in them.

“I think I did rubbish in that exam today. I feel useless”.

This helps you to see that your thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings, they are not fact; e.g. ‘I think I did rubbish in that exam’ is just a thought, just as ‘I feel useless’ is just a feeling.

Once you have greater awareness of your experiences, you are able to name and describe them; once, you can describe them you can have a much clearer understanding of what needs to happen.

e.g. ‘I have a feeling of guilt’ or ‘ I think that I can’t do this’, provides you with something you can respond to, it allows you to consider options to overcome this feeling.

Being able to describe events and feelings in this way, is important in enabling us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others, because we have a much clearer picture of what’s happening. And at the same time, it gives us greater control of our emotions, rather than our emotions controlling us.

‘Observing’ and ‘describing’ skills are really useful when we are learning a new behaviour; this is as relevant to learning to play a new instrument or a new sport as it is to learning mindfulness. Once we have mastered this new behaviour, we find ourselves doing it without self-consciousness; but sometimes if we find our selves struggling at all with our new activity, it can be helpful to start observing and describing again, until we get ourselves back on track. As you continue to read through the other pages linked to the 4D Toolbox, you will notice that ‘Observing’ and ‘Describing’ skills are used lots in helping you to learn many of the other DBT skills.


Get fully involved in what you are experiencing here and now, allow your attention to be focused on the moment, without distraction from other past concerns or future worries.

Use your ‘Wise Mind’ to do just what’s right in the moment.

Mindfully participating in an activity, allows us to experience that activity more fully, giving us new appreciation; at the same time, the simple fact of being absorbed in something, gives us a break from other worries or concerns we might have. This ‘time out’ from other things going on in our lives can in itself bring so many benefits.

Keep practicing your skills as you learn them, so that you can reach a stage where you can participate without self-consciousness; knowing when you’ve achieved this can be different for different people, it might be that you notice a calmness, feeling more peaceful or content.


My 4D Toolkit Activity

ACCEPTLearn how to power up your wise mind

Part of the 4D DBT Toolkit, this podcast explains the What and How of practical mindfulness and the underpinning skills that will help you achieve this positive state.


For more information about ‘DBT’ skills check out the ’4D Toolkit’.

Related Pages: Mindfulness, How Skills


This entry was posted in 4D Toolkit. Bookmark the permalink.