Effectively Use Skills by Brent Menninger

This article was originally posted on DBTSelfHelp.com as part of the series “Well Said.”

A skill is an ability acquired by training. As you learn and refine skills, you become more effective, i.e., you are able to maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative outcomes. In familiar situations, you know how to maximize benefits because you know from experience what works. But in unfamiliar or difficult situations, when you don’t have the benefit of previous experience, you need skills to guide you to the best possible outcome. This paper focuses on the core mindfulness skill “Effectively,” described by Marsha Linehan which will help you learn and develop the necessary skills to deal with stressful situations.

Skills work! The major skills – core mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance skills – will help you maximize your positive outcomes. Instead of reacting automatically without thinking and without skills to a difficult situation, you can learn to practice the smaller, focused skills (like effectively) that make up the major skills (like core mindfulness). The first step to acting skillfully is to focus on making choices, seeing opportunities, and examining options to practice skills. You can choose to work with reality as it is in the here-and-now. This approach is more effective than reacting without thinking.

Today’s focus is on being effective. Rather than emphasizing the end result, concentrate on conducting yourself effectively, which focuses on the most productive process, your choice to use skillful means. What works, in this sense, is a focus on continually developing skills and connecting to reality.

Most people do not effectively engage problems, they avoid them. You will be more effective engaging problems if you employ skills. Whether you use change skills (interpersonal effectiveness or emotion regulation) or acceptance skills (core mindfulness or distress tolerance) you will feel more competent and in control by approaching your problems skillfully.

You can learn to be effective by engaging problems with your Wise Mind (drawing upon your inner wisdom). In Wise Mind, you are able to serenely accept what you cannot change and courageously change the things you can.

Willingness is doing just what is needed in each situation whether you feel like it or not.  Willingness accepts that loss, pain, and distress are part of life and cannot be entirely avoided or removed. Willingness reduces the intensity of loss, pain, and distress because you redirect your attention to the present moment and the task at hand.

Imagine you are a skillful dancer. The dance floor is your life with all its opportunities and options. Your partner is the here-and-now world in which you live. The music is the feeling of flow when you participate willingly in the dance of life.

Imagine, too, sitting at the edge of the dance floor like a wallflower avoiding the music and your partner. Such sitting on your hands is called willfulness. Willfulness is the opposite of willingness; it is being in-effective. Willfulness is NOT doing what is required of reality. Willfulness is characterized by avoidance and giving up. Willfulness is refusing to tolerate the moment and refusing to make changes that are needed

Reality just is – neither fair nor unfair, right nor wrong, good nor bad. Reality doesn’t care what you think it should or should not be. Reality is what it is.

Judgmental evaluation of reality locks you into rigid black-and-white thinking. A more effective thinking style is flexible, intuitive, and adjustable. If you believe there is only one way to do things, you are locked into the rut of polarized thinking (all-or-nothing thinking) and you will eventually get stuck.

By seeing yourself and others realistically, you develop a balanced, inclusive, and open-minded approach. A nonjudgmental approach accepts reality as complex, complicated, and requiring multiple perspectives. Such an open attitude allows you to see more solutions
Accepting mistakes is like accepting problems, most people avoid them.  What works when it comes to mistakes? Learning from mistakes works. Most people get angry or disappointed with themselves for making a mistake. Instead, you will learn and grow as a person when you accept mistakes and choose to view mistakes as life’s lessons.

Consider these ‘rules’ or basic assumptions of Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

  1. You are doing the best you can (if you knew a better way, you would do it).
  2. You want to improve.
  3. You need to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change.
  4. You may not have caused all your problems but you have to solve them anyway.
  5. If you are suicidal, you must change your life, not end it.
  6. You must learn new behaviors in all relevant contexts.
  7. You cannot fail in therapy.

In other words, don’t make the situation worse than it already is! Acts of anger or revenge will hurt you more than they hurt anyone else because acting out of anger and vengeance is not skillful.

Meeting the situation you are in may require you to dismiss your wishes, abandon your ideas of justice, and leave your comfort zone.

  • Wishing is a way to avoid. Wishes indicate that you are trying to solve your problems by magic not by using skills.
  • Thoughts of injustice provoke anger and increase stress. If the situation is not just, remember, life is not fair.
  • Comfort is temporary. Tolerating discomfort is much easier if you learn distress tolerance skills.

When you mindfully observe your objective, other thoughts and feelings not related to your objective are ignored. Ignore “I don’t feel like it” and other self-defeating thoughts. One way to feel one way and act another is to notice your feelings, but stay focused on your objective. Doing what is necessary to achieve your objectives requires mental flexibility.  If your objective is rigidly defined, you are locked into a fixed outcome.

Here is an example from interpersonal effectiveness skills: Consider the important difference between the objective to have someone do a certain thing and the objective to communicate to another person, as best you can, what you would like them to do. Your focus on skillfully communicating to another person what you want orients you toward using your skills to control your behavior. You cannot control the other person. Effectiveness changes the focus from outside (others’ actions or the outcome) to inside (awareness of the choices you are making).

The opposite of effectively would be to make it worse than it already is. But when people are stressed, the part of the brain that allows them to be mindful is turned off. Likewise, feelings of anger and vengeance cause people to react automatically not choose to react mindfully.


Wisdom and skills help you effectively manage life’s difficult problems. Engage problems and look at your options and choices. Willingness is doing just what is needed in each situation connecting your Wise Mind to the task at hand. Instead of being judgmental, use your curiosity to develop mental flexibility. Think of the rules as the assumptions of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Do not make the situation worse than it already is. Meet the situation you are in by focusing on what you can control. Practice Radical Acceptance with your mistakes, this will help you learn and grow.

Brent Menninger is a psychiatrist with over 20 years of experience treating adults and adolescents with mental illness.


These exercises and videos can help you develop a regular Mindfulness practice. Read More>


Wise Mind is the synthesis of Emotion Mind and Rational Mind. It’s a state we all try to achieve, especially for decision-making. Read More>


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