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Exploring Nominalisations With Clean Language


This is an account of a session I ran at NLP South in July 2011. Their theme for the year was “The Map is Not the Territory” - and I decided that a nominalisation is a good example of this…

We started with the ‘five senses’ activity devised by Caitlin Walker, exploring differences in people’s perceptions of the following: see an elephant; hear an alarm; smell smoke; taste a lemon; feel velvet.

Elephant, alarm, smoke, lemon and velvet are all nouns. They are things we can sense – see, hear, smell, taste, feel. Each of them can be put into a wheelbarrow. And yet our experiences of these things are all different, and so our representations of them are all different. And not only that, the way we make those representations differs too.

Next we looked at some nouns that we can’t put into wheelbarrows:

  • Decision
  • Leadership
  • Relationship
  • Confusion
  • Maintenance
  • Motivation

These are called ‘nominalisations’ in NLP. The word ‘nominalis’ is a Latin word, meaning name. ‘Decision’ is a name for the process of deciding. ‘Leadership’ is our name for the process of leading. And so on. It is as though we are taking verbs (process words) and converting them to nouns (single events), in much the same way as when we show someone a snapshot of our holiday and that then represents the whole process of going and being on holiday.

In “The Structure of Magic”, Richard Bandler and John Grinder set out a model that shows how we distort, generalise and delete things in our language – they called it the Meta Model:

There is the deep structure – what we are actually experiencing – and then the surface structure – what we say about our experience. We can’t say everything; that would take too long – and so to be efficient, we distort, delete and generalise. In the case of nominalisations, this involves turning processes into events.

This has some benefits.

  • It saves time. If we had to describe our whole experience of a holiday to someone, it would probably take longer than the holiday itself. Instead, we show a snapshot or two and give them an impression of the holiday. If we think about the whole process of how we are relating to someone, there’ll be many incidents and conversations. Instead, we sum it all up as ‘our relationship’.
  • If you are talking to a group of people, a single word can evoke different experiences in each of them, and so nominalisations can be useful for including everyone: “I want to give you all the motivation and encouragement you need and trust you have the commitment to make this project the success it needs to be.” Just everyone sees different pictures of elephants and hears different kinds of alarms, a sentence like this allows everyone to make up their own representations, to make sense of it in their own way.
  • Nominalisations can make things seem more stable and constant than they actually are. Change can be quite a scary prospect and when we know we are in a process, we are more aware that things can change at any time. When we use the term ‘global warming’ for example, it makes it sound like a ‘one-off’ event rather than something that’s happening all the time, which in turn makes it easier to put it to the back of our minds and get on with something else.

But nominalisations also have drawbacks:

  • It may save time to delete the details from a communication – but this can also create misunderstandings, when two people use the same word, but are actually thinking about two quite different kinds of behaviour. For example, we can all agree that respect is an important value, but we may not agree on how to show respect. In some cultures it is a customary sign of respect to look people in the eye when talking to them and in other cultures it is considered disrespectful to look someone in the eye.
  • Leading on from that, you may think you are motivating a group to do one thing, but their interpretation of what behaviours you are expecting may be quite different from your own.
  • If we make our problems into ‘static’ words, then it can feel like we are stuck with them. If we talk about ‘my fear’ it is as though we own it and it cannot be changed. Similarly, if we use ‘static’ words to describe our goals – without defining the behaviours or the process of getting there, then we are unlikely to achieve them. “I want success” is quite a meaningless statement on its own.

In NLP, the thing to do if you want to help someone to recognise the process, is turn the noun into a verb and ask about that, e.g.:

  • The problem is my relationship. How are you relating?
  • The decision is final. What are you deciding? How have you gone about deciding?
  • Our communication is not going well. How are you communicating?
  • His leadership skills leave a lot to be desired. Who is he leading to do what?
  • My motivation isn’t what it used to be. What do you want to motivate yourself to do?
  • I have a lot of stress in my job What is pressuring you? How are you stressing?

One area that depends on nominalisations quite a lot is when we consider our values. We treat these as ‘static’ things too – and we create hierarchies of values. I have a card set with values on each card and lots of activities which involve putting them in order, figuring out which is most important to you. And two people might say they have similar values. But as with other nominalisations, they are just a snapshot in time, or a gestalt of several incidents over time, and we can find out more about them by questioning them.

Everyone chose a value from the following list…

  • openness
  • fairness
  • creativity
  • enthusiasm
  • honesty
  • flexibility
  • freedom
  • learning
  • loyalty
  • recognition

…and then, in pairs, asked one another questions like those above, with the aim of having their partner find out more about the ‘deep structure’ relating to their chosen word.

As you’d expect, different people had different experiences of the same word: a word can paint a thousand pictures!

However, the questioning process did not feel respectful to some people. One participant said she felt ‘needled’ by the questions and two or three people noted that when a noun was turned into a verb (e.g. loyalty to being loyal, openness to being open) it necessarily became one-sided, and in whereas the original noun had signified two-way processes.

So it was a good moment to introduce everyone to the idea of Clean Language, which aims to get at the same kind of information – what is the process going on here - but which keeps the person’s words intact, with questions such as “What kind of loyalty is that loyalty?” or “Is there anything else about that loyalty?” Clean Language was the brainchild of David Grove who studied with many therapists and pored over their transcripts. He noted that their questions often jolted their clients out of their own experience, and wanted to find a way for them to explore their experience without the questioner’s assumptions and ideas impinging (however subtly) on them.

David also recognised that the metaphors we use are often at more of an unconscious level than other kinds of language, and that by developing them he could help a client to get to the deep structure of their experience. So he would wait until a person used a metaphorical description and then develop it.

In the next activity, everyone asked one another clean questions from the following list, listening out for and developing any metaphors which naturally occurred:

  • And what kind of … is that … ?
  • And is there anything else about … ?
  • And where / whereabouts is … ?
  • And does … have a size or a shape?
  • And that’s … like what?

Some of the metaphors that emerged from this activity were quite static (e.g. a cosy duvet cover), while others were already processes (watering dry earth and a tree growing), so we looked at some questions which can help take a static image and turn it into a process:

  • And then what happens?
  • And what happens next?
  • And what happens just before?
  • And what happens between … and … ?

The final activity involved asking these questions (in addition to those above) in order to turn the static images into processes. In doing so, we had taken some everyday nominalisations / values and discovered the ‘deep structure’ of them, using Clean Language and metaphor.

Image by M W from Pixabay 

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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