Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Keys to Effective Thinking

Stay aware and focused, and
avoid vague language

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/think.htm

Updated  01-07-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in online Lesson 2  - learn communication basics and seven powerful skills to get more daily needs met more often. Progress with this Lesson depends on concurrent progress on Lesson 1 - free your wise true Self to guide you in calm and stressful times.   

      Before continuing, stop and reflect - why are you reading this - what do you need?

       From almost 20,000 hours of listening to over 1,000 therapy clients, students, and others since 1981, I conclude that all kids and most adults aren't aware of how they think. This is part of adults' general unawareness.

      Implication - most of us aren't aware of how ineffective (unfocused, irrational, fragmented, vague) thinking" hinders filling current needs. It's encouraging to read that researchers are starting to study the epidemic phenomenon of "mind wandering" and "not paying attention."

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you're about to read:

      This article provides...

  • premises about why we think and effective thinking,

  • how to assess the effectiveness of how you think in important situations,

  • premises abut what causes ineffective thinking, and...

  • practical ways to think more effectively when you need to.

      Have you ever thought about how you think? On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the effectiveness of your thinking in general ___ and in stressful situations ___?

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • online Lessons1 and 2

  • this perspective on personal awareness, and...

  • frequently-asked questions about personality subselves

      See how these ideas compare to yours...

Communication exists to help animals like us reduce current emotional, physical, and spiritual discomforts or needs. Effective communication fills primary needs well enough.

Thinking is internal communication among our personality subselves in three domains: conscious + semiconscious + unconscious. So...

This ceaseless internal communication process uses information-processing rules like logic, reasoning, grammar, and syntax to help us...

  • "make sense" of (understand) sensory information and perceived environmental events, so we can...

  • identify and prioritize our current needs (discomforts), and...

  • choose behaviors that fill our current needs well enough. 

Effective thinking means "using awareness + conscious thoughts + memories + reflexes, hunches, and unconscious inputs to identify current primary needs, and decide how to fill them well enough." Ineffective thinking interferes with these two goals.

      The rest of this article offers practical options for raising your mental effectiveness.

What Is Effective Thinking?

      Premise: the purpose of thinking is to "make sense" of (understand) our current inner and outer environments so we can decide (a) what we need now and (b) how to best fill these needs. Can you think of other reasons you think?

      Implications: thinking and feeling automatically build a huge data base (memory) about all the inner and outer things you've experienced. For example, you learn that butterflies and broccoli are safe to touch, and rattlesnakes usually aren't.

      Your un/conscious minds use this ever-growing data base to "make sense" out of current perceptions and sensations. Recent medical research reveals that normal kids and adults have several different brain regions which act as a network of temporary and long-term data bases and processing centers.

Two Levels

      There seems to be at least two levels of "making sense." One is via "thoughts," which are inner strings of learned words. Words are symbols we began collecting in infancy to represent thousands of concepts.

      Because "a picture is worth a thousand words," thinking can also involve our innate ability to form inner images, and weave them among our words to enrich and simplify making sense of the world. Some people are more "visual" than others. They have a wider capacity to recall or invent ("imagine") meaningful inner images, and/or they use more images in their information-processing than other people.

      Are you a visual person? Do you know someone who is? Common alternatives are kinesthetic (touch-and-action oriented) and aural or audible (sound-oriented).

      The other level of "making sense" of the world seems more primitive. It may lack word-symbols and "reasoning" like a newborn infant does. It reacts to perceived information (stimuli) via a fluid mix of vaguely felt hunches, intuitions, instincts, dreams, senses, ("I sense you're angry now") and/or knowings. These form the mysterious province of our unconscious mind. It can be thought of as a crisis-backup system to help us survive when we're not consciously thinking "too well." 

      Distraction-free meditation and our learned vocabulary can help us consciously discern and identify some feelings, hunches, and instincts. Doing so adds them to the database your conscious mind uses to define, rank, and instruct your body to fill your current needs ("I feel thirsty. I need to stop reading and drink something.") There seems to be a time lag for some of us: our unconscious mind/body can "know" what we need before our conscious mind "makes sense of things." Do you ever experience that? 


      See how you feel about these proposals...

Your thinking is a semi-automatic, organic (mental + physical + spiritual + emotional) process that combines conscious and unconscious "decoding" (sense-making) of the ceaseless information from your five or six senses, using (a) several mental "data bases," and (b) learned information-processing rules.

      "Semi-automatic" suggests that your conscious mind can control some of your thinking process, just as you can learn to change your breathing, sleeping, and eating habits. This implies that you can learn to improve the effectiveness of your thinking, within limits. Do you agree?

You can assess the effectiveness of your (conscious + unconscious) thinking process over a time period by deciding how consistently you get your current primary needs met well enough. This implies you need to be clearly aware of what you think, feel, and need.

      Are you?

      Common symptoms of ineffective thinking + unawareness are often feeling...

  • worried, dissatisfied, frustrated, anxious, irritable, tired, guilty, lonely, and/or upset; and/or...

  • you often feel "I don't know what I need right now."

These are usually symptoms of a deeper problem - being often dominated by protective false selves.

      So your emotions and body sensations indicate the effectiveness of your current (conscious + unconscious) thinking. Do you agree?

 What Causes Ineffective Thinking?

      Recall that effective thinking...

  • makes accurate "sense" out of current inner and outer events,

  • defines and prioritizes current primary needs, and...

  • evolves safe, healthy ways to fill current and long-term needs well enough.

      Ineffective thinking hinders these goals.

Do you agree?

        Except for organic brain malfunctions, ineffective thinking is caused by factors like these...

  • A personality governed by disorganized subselves (a "false self"). This is like a committee meeting where everyone talks at once, no one hears well, and effective group processing is sporadic at best. A solution to this is steady commitment to some version of online Lesson 1.

  • Emotional numbness and/or unawareness of our outer environments. This is like a radio with no antenna. Over time, we grow numb to our numbness. Chronic emotional numbness ("I don't know what I feel or need now") is a common symptom of significant psychological wounds.

  • Typical ineffective thinkers lack...

awareness of their inner process that translates current mental, emotional, and physical signals into "understanding" and current needs. This is like being unaware of our breathing, posture, and social eye-contact habits. And they lack...

knowledge of..

  • how personality subselves affect perceptions, reactions, and behaviors - including thinking and social communication;

  • what's possible. Typical ineffective thinkers don't know what they're missing or their options for improvement; and they lack...

  • a vocabulary to accurately describe the data they get from their minds and body. Having a small vocabulary is like trying to paint a fine portrait with a broom; And ineffective thinkers lack knowledge of...

  • The communication basics and skills which empower people to define their needs clearly and to act to fill current needs effectively. In other words, typical ineffective thinkers don't know they don't know the vital information that comprises Lessons 1 and 2 here.

      Two more factors that promote ineffective societal thinking are...

  • Constant distraction, and social disinterest. Our high-stimulus, warp-speed culture is used to unawareness and ineffective thinking, and promotes it by ignoring it. Because of the factors above and lack of public demand, the people controlling our media and educational systems and programs don't focus on "effective thinking."  Some business leaders do, to raise their profits.

      The ceaseless sensory stimulation our culture bombards us with promotes personal and social numbness and "information overload." Our Information-Age flood of data, images, and sounds constantly distracts us from growing the habit of quiet, focused awareness and clear thinking. Does this happen to you?

Reality check: can you recall a recent radio or TV program, or an article, billboard, local school program or course that focuses on how to think effectively (vs. "logically")? In your many years of school, did you ever focus on this subject?

      Once you understand what causes ineffective thinking, you can choose among these... 


      1)  In critical, conflictual, or confusing situations, (a) confirm that your true Self is in charge and then (b) ask questions like these: 

"What do you (or I) need right now, specifically - in general, and from me (or you)?"

"What have you (or I) tried, already - and what did you ( I ) get - specifically?" and...

"What do you (or I) feel is in the way (of getting enough of what you / I need) - specifically?"

"Specifically" invites you to avoid vague terms and phrases (5 below). The last question is not an invitation to blame someone (including yourself), any more than you'd blame a car tire for going flat. ("Agh! What a stupid, irresponsible tire!") This brings up another impactful option.

      Ignoring this option will dilute or block benefits from the rest of these options.

      2)  Your executive subselves must want to become "more aware" by doing things like...

  • practicing this simple exercise regularly without trying to be "perfect";

  • quitting tobacco and other "downer" chemicals like ethyl alcohol can help raise your present-moment awareness; 

  • So can learning to breathe well from your belly, vs. your chest, and...

  • meditating and objectively noticing your inner and physical dynamics; and trying the ideas in..

  • Julia Cameron's useful book The Artist's Way.

      People who choose to overload themselves with responsibilities and tasks have lots of distractions to block inner awareness. So do people (i.e. false selves) who avoid journaling, meditating, and/or relaxing quietly in nature. Zen Buddhism and similar practices promote raising present-moment awareness. Paradox: you'll not experience the great benefit of awareness until you try it!

      3) Evolve your own definition of effective thinking, and practice using it to gauge your status and progress. Try saying your definition out loud now. Two signs of effective thinking and awareness are (a) feeling calm, centered, secure, and serene; and (b) consistent clarity on your current primary needs and potential ways to fill them.

      Option 4)  Coach yourself to notice your body signals in all situations, and develop awareness of feelings that indicate false-self control. Conversely, notice how your body feels when your Self is guiding your other subselves and your thinking is effective. "Noticing" improves when you (a) breathe from your belly, and (b) ask yourself with an open mind "What am I feeling physically right now? in random and important situations.     

      5)  Practice viewing (a) personal and interpersonal "problems" as unfilled needs, and (b) each adult and child's non-emergency needs as being just as legitimate and worthy as yours. That will promote wanting to discern "What do you and I really need right now?" When true Selves are in the lead, discovering mutual current primary needs allows win-win problem solving if both people have reasonable fluency in using these communication skills.

      6)  Regard all your emotions as useful signals about current needs. If your Inner Critic and/or Moralizer were trained to denounce anger, fear, shame, confusion, frustration, and guilt as bad or negative, they are (a) ignoring what your other subselves are trying to communicate, and (b) probably shaming them. That hinders inner-family harmony, and degrades your thinking!

      Note the difference between feeling an emotion and expressing it. When people label an emotion "bad" or "negative," they're usually referring to (a) related discomfort ("guilt feels bad") and (b) ways of expression ("When Chris gets angry s/he screams and gets physically violent.") This labeling promotes guilt and shame, and hinders effective communication and problem-solving. Accepting that all emotions are valuable rather than good or bad may be a core-attitude change.

      7) Learn and practice the seven communication skills in Lesson 2. Then use the skills and these communication-process terms to try "mapping" communication sequences between (a) conflicted subselves and (b) you and other people. Use awareness and mapping to spot situational and/or chronic in-effective thinking, so you can improve it. You can also use mapping to spot any of these common communication blocks - and then use the seven skills to resolve them!

      Option 8)  Coach yourself and those you love to become fuzzy and "hand-grenade" word hunters.

Vague Words and Misunderstanding

      People who have chronic trouble resolving conflicts well often...

  • use vague, general pronouns (fuzzy thinking), and/or they...

  • don't check to see if their partner decodes the meaning of key words the way they do.

Common vague terms are it, that, those, the problem, this issue, these things, soon, and them in talking about complex personal and social problems. For instance, 

"We have to find a way to make it better."

is far less likely to promote effective communication and problem-solving than...

"I need to understand specifically what you need from me now
about my daughter's recent disrespectful behavior."

Option - build the habit of respectfully asking yourself and your communication partners "What is it | that | the problem | them | those things | all that stuff | deal with |...?" Often that will uncover an inadequate vocabulary and/or ineffective thinking and unseen false-self dominance.

      Another type of fuzzy terminology (and thinking) is using general or slang terms to mean specific things. For instance, if you say "At times, you really upset me," you'll have a harder time unearthing what you need than if you choose more specific words like...

"Wanda, when you repeatedly interrupt me before I'm finished speaking, I feel disrespected, hurt, frustrated, and like clamming up and walking out."

Composing statements like this takes intentional focus and awareness until it becomes a habit.

      Option: develop your skill and reflex to listen empathically in important situations - i.e. to do "hearing checks" with your active subselves and outer partners. This can expose misunderstandings and wrong assumptions over key words or phrases. For example, you say calmly...

 "So Martha, you're asking me for more intimacy, meaning better sex."

and she replies... 

"No! Honey, I need more time just holding each other, and talking like we used to. I really need to know how you're feeling, and what you want. You rarely talk about those, and I feel shut out, frustrated, and anxious. Our love-making is usually fine for me." 

Hand-grenade Words and Phrases

      "Hand-grenade" words and phrases are terms that are emotionally explosive - i.e. they provoke significant hurt, guilt, shame, fear, disgust, and anger in one or more people. Using provocative language can activate the listener's false self and instantly raise their E-level, so they lose their ability to hear. 

      People accumulate different collections of hand-grenade words. Option - evolve a list of such terms that occur in your inner and outer relationships, and consciously choose to avoid them. That will probably require your Self (capital "S") to confront key subselves who love those terms! 


abuse, abused, abusive, or abuser

moron, dumb, dumb-ass, dunce, stupid, stupidity

sexist / macho / chauvinist /
mama's boy

addict, addicted, and "your addiction"

selfish, self-centered, egotistical, arrogant, bully,

real wo/man / husband / wife / partner / parent /...

snob, snobbish, stuck up, dictator

abort, abortion, abortionist, baby killer

idiot / retard / moron /  ignorant

rape, raped

racist, bigot




sin, sinner



coward, wimp



Jesus freak



whore, prick


loser / failure



mental case

liar / con

sicko / wacko


bitch / bastard

Other powerful hand-grenade words denote racial or religious scorn, disrespect, and bigotry.

      The way these words are spoken (voice tone, inflection, facial expression) can make them explosive or OK. Umbrella terms for using provocative, words like these are "name-calling," "being mean," "foul-mouthed," and "blaming."

      Chronic or situational use of provocative terms and phrases usually signals (a) false selves control the speaker, and (b) they are unaware of - or don't care about - the effects of their behavior on the receiver or their relationship. The speaker's ruling subselves have a 1-up (superior) attitude and a one-person or no-person awareness bubble. For example:

"Jeff, when it comes to confronting your ex wife, you turn into a
 spineless, yellow-bellied coward." (hand-grenade phrase) 

may really mean... 

"Jeff I'm frustrated, confused, and scared. I need to regain my respect for you, and my trust in you to help keep our relationship safe by wanting to be more assertive with your ex wife for your sake, not to please me." (Note - this can be received as an unintended communication block called a be-spontaneous paradox.)

      Is it your experience that ineffective thinking and unawareness usually promote each other?

      The more important you feel a situation or relationship is, the more you can benefit from being alert for (a) vague and provocative terms, and (b) for people (or subselves) having different interpretations of key words and phrases. The learnable communication skills of awareness, metatalk (talking about communicating), and empathic listening are major helps here. These apply to the way you think (your subselves communicate) as well as how you talk!

      Option 9) "Build your vocabulary, for sharper thinking and speaking." This may feel pretty vague and overwhelming. Try restricting your learning goals to several classes of words and phrases. For instance,  patiently expand your inventory of words that describe...

  • Emotions. There are several dozen useful descriptors - how many can you name? How many do you use regularly?;

  • Primary needs ("I need respect, security, appreciation, challenge, purpose, and stimulation.");

  • Communication dynamics and blocks,

  • Family and relationship terms;

  • Common family-health factors,

  • Psychological wounds and symptoms

      Does building special vocabularies like these feel more do-able than learning the whole dictionary? Breaking big tasks into manageable chunks and prioritizing them is typical of a true Self in charge. Do the young people in your life know how and when to do this yet?

      10)  Coach yourself to identify specifically what you expect from yourself and others. Typical stressed, over-busy (wounded) adults and all kids are...

  • unaware of - or can't articulate - what they expect from themselves and others, and/or...

  • they haven't explained or confirmed their expectations; and/or...

  • they haven't reality-checked whether their expectations are realistic or appropriate now. 

      All of these promote ineffective thinking and communicating.

      A tragically frequent example of this is expecting a wounded, unaware person - including yourself - to behave like an informed person guided by their true Self. This is as unrealistic as expecting the person to rise into the air by flapping their arms. Unawareness of unrealistic role and relationship expectations is a frequent stressor in typical troubled (low nurturance) families and new stepfamilies,

      Option 11)  Work with a motivated partner to learn and practice these effective-thinking options. Having Self-led, informed partners to exchange supportive feedback with can reduce distortions and other blocks and speed your learning and skill-building. It's also more fun!

+ + +

      We just reviewed 11 practical options for improving your mental awareness and effectiveness. Other powerful ways to improve your thinking efficiency are to observe...

  • how you use imagery and instincts to form mental perceptions and behaviors, and...

  • how you process your perceptions - i.e. logic, logical inference, and deduction. These are beyond the scope of this article.


      This article is one of a series on how to communicate effectively. One skill is effective (vs. fuzzy, scattered, unfocused, and vague) thinking. The article offers perspective on thinking, a definition of effective thinking, and factors that promote ineffective thinking. It proposes 11 options for  improving the effects of your mental processing. Key requisites are...

  • keep your true Self in charge of your personality (Lesson 1)

  • grow clear personal and environmental awareness,

  • expand your vocabulary, and..

  • learn effective communication basics and skills (Lesson 2)

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

      The unique Lesson-2 study guidebook Satisfactions (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates the key Web articles and resources in this nonprofit Web site, and provides many practical resources.  

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