How Changing A Verb Can Prevent You Resolving A Problem

27 Apr 2016

How Changing A Verb Can Prevent You Resolving A Problem

How words shift responsibility

There had been trouble in the middle east in the weeks leading up to my departure from the UK. I was leaving via Heathrow airport and security levels were at their highest. Everyone faced 5-10 minutes of questioning before even being allowed to check in. I was interviewed intensely for 45 minutes – by three people!

I wondered at one point what on earth I’d done wrong and if I’d ever be allowed to leave. I had no control over the situation, all I could do was answer the questions and try to see the problem from a different perspective.

Resolving a problem a the airport

Changing your perspective on a problem can give you insights into ways to fix it – or at least help you feel you have a little more control over resolving it. One of the ways we frequently lose control is the language we use – and I’m not talking about foul language!

Language is internal and external

When I say language I mean the language we use when we speak or write as well as the language we use in our heads. There’s a particular type of word to look and listen for.

It’s called a nominalisation.

A nominalisation is a verb (which is an action or process word) that’s become a noun.

Now, if you’re not a grammar geek and you’ve just gone into a light trance – come back!

Bear with me as I explain it a little more, because just learning this one thing could save you a lot of heartache. A noun is a word that’s used to name a person, animal, place, thing, or abstract idea, for example, frog, hospital, pen, boy. A nominalisation takes a verb which is an action or process word and turns it into a noun.

Let’s take three specific and typical examples:
  1. “Our relationship just doesn’t work anymore.”
  2. “There’s no communication around here.”
  3. “There needs to be more trust.”

The nominalised verbs are in bold. Notice how nominalising the verbs turns them into abstract concepts, or things over which we appear to have no control. And therein lies the problem; when we nominalise verbs we lose control over the underlying process. Let’s take each one and examine it to show how it might influence your ability to effect change.

1. “Our relationship just doesn’t work anymore.”
‘Relationship’ is the nominalised word and in the sentence it’s spoken about as if it’s a finished thing, kind of like a broken toy!

2. “There’s no communication around here.”
In this sentence, the word ‘communication’ is a thing that’s divorced from any people! You could just as well say, “There’s no tomato ketchup around here.” In fact, that last sentence makes more sense.

3. “There needs to be more trust.”
Same. ‘Trust’ implies it’s a thing, like “There needs to be more fruit.”

Well, so what?
Nominalised words leave us powerless to resolve a problem.

To regain control we need to turn the nominalised word back into a process/action word.

Let’s recycle those previous examples, convert them back into verbs and ask some questions that would give us back control.

1. “Our relationship just doesn’t work anymore.”
Let’s turn that word ‘relationship’ back into an action verb by de-nominalising it: “Our relating just doesn’t work anymore.” Or if you wanted to make the sentence more conversational you might say, “The way we’re relating to each other just isn’t working anymore.” Notice how turning ‘relationship’ back into a verb, ‘relating’, immediately puts the sentence into the present tense, puts you back into the frame and provides more information.

So you could ask, “How are we relating?” “What isn’t working about how we’re relating?” The answers to these questions will give you accurate answers that you can then begin to address.

2. “There’s no communication around here.”
Turning it back to a verb could make it, “There’s no communicating around here.”
You could then ask, “Who’s not communicating with whom?” or “Who’s not communicating what?”

3. “There needs to be more trust.”
You could change this to, “There needs to be more trusting” or “I need to be more trusting.”
Questions could then include,“How much more trusting do I need to be?” “Who is not trusting who?” “How can I be more trusting?”

Doing this will make the questions (and hopefully the answers) more precise. When you have accurate information, you’ll have a better idea about how to resolve the problem.

From these examples, you can see that de-nominalising gives you the opportunity to think about the situation differently.

Nominalised words frequently end with ‘tion’ or ‘ship’

Examples are; communication, depression, relationship, ownership, discussion, emotion, negotiation, invasion, observation, etc. Yes, even the word nominalisation! But many other words are commonly nominalised; discipline, effectiveness, success, failure, honesty, and other ‘value’ words. The biggest nominalisation of all? ‘I’. (Think about it!)

But why don’t I just ask ‘why’?

Sure, you can question using why. But often, asking why results in a person justifying what they’re doing, or blaming someone/something. By turning the noun back into a verb a person is more likely to make a clinical examination of their behaviour.

Let’s look at the three examples again.
But this time instead of de-nominalising them, let’s ask why/why not:
“Our relationship just doesn’t work anymore.”
“There’s no communication around here.”
“There needs to be more trust.”

Can you hear the answers you’ll probably receive?

You know the typical responses you’ll get if you ask why/why not? You can hear them can’t you? The usual response will be to justify the current situation or blame someone else for the problem. So it’s useful to check whether asking why/why not will get you closer to resolving the issue. Or will it leave you up in the air?

I wanted to be up in the air

Instead I seemed to have been grounded. When the questioning was over, I finally got permission to check in and then board my plane. I grabbed my hand luggage, recovered my pride and composure (both nominalisations) smiled at the growing bunch of onlookers and once again felt in control.

  • Verbs turned into nouns are called nominalisations.
  • Nominalisations make ‘things’ out of processes, meaning we lose control over a situation and feel powerless to resolve it.
  • Turning the nominalisation back into a verb gives us back a feeling of control.
  • Asking ‘why?’ usually invokes justification or blaming responses that are not always useful.