How To Resolve A Problem Smoothly — By Changing A Noun


To resolve a problem is challenging at the best of times

But, sometimes the language that’s used to describe the problem is the very reason it’s difficult to resolve.

Have you heard any of these or similar phrases:

  • Our relationship doesn’t seem to work anymore.
  • There’s no communication around here.
  • There needs to be more trust in the company.

The problem with these sentences is that the grammar itself hinders you from resolving the problem

When you change the grammar, new ways to resolve the problem will magically open up.

Now, if you’re not a grammar geek and you’ve gone into a light trance — come back! It’ll be painless, I promise!

Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

Some people have a habit of turning verbs into nouns. By doing so, they experience more difficulty in resolving a problem. The NLP term for this is nominalising. But don’t get too hung up on the label — it’s more important that you understand the concept and its impact.

Bear with me as I explain it a little more because just learning this one thing might save you a lot of heartaches and guide you to resolve a problem smoothly.

A noun is a word that’s used to name a person, animal, place, thing, or abstract idea, for example, frog, hospital, pen, boy.

Sometimes we take a verb, which is an action or process word, and turn it into a noun.

Let’s take those three fairly typical examples from the beginning of this post:

  1. “Our relationship doesn’t seem to work anymore.”
  2. “There’s no communication around here.”
  3. “There needs to be more trust in the company,”

couple not resolving a problem

The verbs that have become nouns are in bold. They’re the nominalisations. Notice how nominalising the verbs turns them into abstract concepts or things over which we appear to have no control, rather than a process.

Let’s examine these examples to show how they might influence your ability to effect change.

  1. “Our relationship doesn’t seem to work anymore.”
    ‘Relationship’ is the nominalised word 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 state, “There’s no tomato ketchup around here.” In fact, that last sentence makes more sense.
  3. “There needs to be more trust in the company.”
    Same. ‘Trust,’ implies it’s a thing, like “There needs to be more milk in the company.”

Well, so what?

Nominalised words leave us powerless to resolve a problem.

The way to regain control is 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 and a way forward to resolve a problem.

1. “Our relationship doesn’t seem to 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.

If you want to explore this, and help find a solution it, you might ask, “How are you relating?” “What isn’t working about how you’re relating?” “What do you believe is the problem with how you’re relating?” The answers to these questions will give you accurate answers that you can then address.

2. “There’s no communication around here.”

Turning the sentence back to a verb would make it, “There’s no communicating around here.”
You could then ask, “Who’s not communicating with whom?” or “Who’s not communicating what?” “What kind of communicating would you like?”

3. “There needs to be more trust in the company.”

You could change this to “There needs to be more trusting in the company,”
Questions would then include, “How much more trusting does the company need to be?” “Who is not trusting who in the company?” “How can you be more trusting in the company?” “What would indicate that people were trusting each other in the company?”

hands indicating trust

De-nominalising will make the questions (and hopefully the answers) more precise. When you have accurate information, you’ll have a better idea of how to resolve the problem.

From these examples, you can see that de-nominalising also gives you a different perspective on the problem, and insights into possible solutions.

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

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?


(Think about it!)

But can’t I resolve a problem by just asking why or why not?

Sure, you can question using why or why not. But often, asking why results in a person justifying what they’re doing, or blaming someone or something. By turning the noun back into an active verb, a person is more likely to make a clinical examination of their own behaviour.

Let’s look at the three examples again

But this time, instead of de-nominalising them, imagine just asking why or why not:

  1. “Our relationship just doesn’t seem to work anymore.”
  2. “There’s no communication around here.”
  3. “There needs to be more trust in the company.”

Can you conjure up the answers you’ll receive?

You can hear them, can’t you? Will those responses get you any closer to a solution?

I doubt it.

So it’s useful to check whether asking why or why not will help you resolve a problem. Or will it just reinforce a position?

Here are the key points again:

  • Verbs turned into nouns are nominalisations.
  • Nominalisations make ‘things’ out of processes, meaning we lose control over a problem and reduce our power to resolve it.
  • Turn the nominalisation back into a verb. In this way, you can ask relevant questions, regain control and move closer to a solution.
  • ‘Why?’ questions will usually invoke justification or blaming responses that are not useful.

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Tags: Communication skills, Conflict, Interpersonal skills, Language


  1. Ros Lee

    I love denominalising. It has helped me a lot. This article is a keeper – it describes the process so much better than I can whenever I try to explain it to friends or work colleagues!

    • Stephanie

      Thank you, Ros! I appreciate your comments. Yes, de-nominalising is a deceptively powerful tool.????

    • Stephanie

      You’re welcome, Gail!

  2. Arteshar

    Very good post Stephanie, so clear and well structured for anyone to follow.

    • Stephanie

      Thanks so much, Arteshar. That means a lot.????


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