Nominalization – A rose by any other name arose

In a hypnosis workshop on South Padre Island in 2007, I was teaching the concept of nominalizations. This is a part of NLP’s Milton Model, one of the key models in Neuro-linguistic Programming.

A nominalization, simply, is a noun that used to be a verb. Think about that for a moment. A word like “security” comes from making oneself “secure”. “Prosperity” is to “consistently prosper.” It’s a useful concept in therapy, where the client may complain of “depression”, which is in fact the action of “being depressed”. I don’t say this to trivialize such a serious issue. On the contrary, it’s to introduce a degree of flexibility into that process. To take the noun, the thing the other person has made it, and gently turn it back into a verb. Not merely something they have done, or has happened, but to clarify that they are doing it. To clarify that maintaining this state requires effort on their part. To do nothing would in fact cause it to fall away.

I asked one of my workshop attendees for an example of a nominalization, and she said, “Love.” Excellent one! “Because,” I said, “what is love? I know, “baby, don’t hurt me–no more.” (If you don’t recall the song, it’s unimportant. But regarding the “hurt me” part, I’m making no judgments about your particular brand of “love”–that’s personal, so as long as you and your partner consent, have fun!

The thing to bear in mind with nominalizations is that they remove the active process and turn it into a static thing. If this is something you want to remain unquestioned, that may be good for you. However if you need to take any action, nominalization removes that. Case in point: There is a difference between having “successful sales” and “selling successfully.” The first is done. It’s now an event that we can look back upon or something we can hope, by chance, just occurs. The alternative requires active participation and therefore your involvement in producing the outcome. Which do you think motivates selling activity more?

Apply it to mental health, which is where this model originated. Someone complains of “being depressed” instead of “creating depression.” In our culture, the former is such a common phrase that the alternative almost seems awkward. Yet bear with me for a moment. What if that person instead complained of his “creating depression,” or “doing depressing things”, or “going through all the motions necessary to become depressed.” The former, though more common, suggests it just sort of happened to him, that he played no role in it at all. Does it surprise you that when someone says such a thing, they need someone’s help to change it? Or worse, medication.

Please note: I am not saying this is the answer for everyone, certainly not every case. I’m not a psychiatrist and can’t medically assess someone’s condition. They may have a good reason to be on medication and I’d never presume to question that. I do however believe that at times, clinicians may opt for meds when not necessary. After all, they may appear to do the work of a good therapist. Easy.

But this process also happens in the corporate world everyday. I often encounter management speaking of “goal attainment,” “quota relief,” “sales motion,” “success” and the like, as if any of these just floated in with the tide…or not…

In fact, they are all the products of actions we can take. They are the visible outcome of our decisions and our diligent activity.

“Goal attainment” is now “working to attain our goals.”

“Quota relief” is now “successful selling to relieve our quota numbers.”

“Sales motion” is “getting out there and following our sales process and…SELLING!”

“Success” is now “working hard AND SMART to create success instead of…the alternative…” Or something active like that which inspires us to take responsibility for taking an action.

Returning a nominalization to its original form restores our power. We are no longer at the mercy of some static event as we sit by, passive victims. By definition, this places responsibility and opportunity back into our hands, where we can seize the day, claim our prize, and achieve.

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