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Operationalizing the Concept
by Susan Dunn

I was reading an article the other day about branding. The author of the book had set up an experiment to see if people perceived the “personality” of the businesses they dealt with. He began the experiment by saying, “Please describe this company as if it were a person.”

Instead of saying “please describe this company’s personality,” he put the extra link in there for the not-so-conceptual.

We all tend to talk in broad concepts, and helping the client operationalize them makes sure you're both reading off the same page, and can also correct thinking that's causing unhappiness.

I’m thinking of the client I talked with the other day who was discouraged. She said she felt her life had no purpose. “I haven’t done anything meaningful in my life,” she said.

She and I have been working on learned optimism – not attributing bad things to reasons that are (1) personal (2) pervasive or (3) permanent, and you can see she tends to think that way – globally.

The feelings aren't going to change unless the faulty thinking behind them is changed, so what do you do? A little operationalizing and defining of terms.

In this instance:

•Get them to define their conceptual term: What would you be willing to accept as something “meaningful”?

•Give some concrete examples of the concept from your own life, explaining that “meaning” is something you attribute to yourself for yourself: Here are some of the things I have done in my life I considered meaningful. Someone else may not consider them “meaningful” and you may not, but I do –

1. Held a dying person in my arms
2. Kept my kitchen counter uncluttered for one month
3. Listened with my heart to my niece talk about her divorce
4. Tithed to my church
5. Had the guts to give a keynote address to 300 people*
6. Sat with a friend during a difficult surgery

*Stress again that these things might be absolutely meaningless to someone else. For instance, for another person giving a keynote address to 300 people might not take any “guts” at all.

•Give them examples of things they could do (or may have done) that meet their criteria for “meaningful” and make it both grand and tiny, both externally-rewarded and personal so they begin to get perspective. Begin with – some of these you might not have the skills to do, yet or ever, but here are some ideas:

1. Win the Nobel Peace Prize
2. Be a Big Brother/Big Sister for one year
3. Deepen your relationship with your spouse
4. Get the State Volunteer of the Year Award
5. Find a cure for AIDS
6. Make a difference in the life of one other human being
7. Adopt an abused animal
8. Visit someone in a nursing home once a week. Bring cookies and listen.

•Get them down to the concrete level about their own life: “Is there anything you have done in your life that would meet your definition of ‘meaningful’?”

•Close the loop: Then you have, in fact, done meaningful things with your life. Therefore you don’t need to feel discouraged any more.

•Resistance: This client then replied “But those are little things. I haven’t achieved anything BIG my life.”

•Concretize again: What is “life?” Your life is not over. Your life is not finished. Your life is in-progress, it’s ongoing, it starts again the very next moment, and furthermore, your life is composed of moments.

•Counter vocabulary: What is “big”? Why do you use the word “achieve”? Is life an achievement, or is it to be lived, experienced and enjoyed? “Achieve” has connotations of finality, and also of an outside judge. Meaning is wide, not big. Who judges?

•Follow-up: Ask the client to make a list of all the “moments” in their life. I don’t give this list a name, I just describe it, i.e., list the things that have happened to you, things you’ve done or accomplished, things that had meaning to you (and you alone).

This is a great exercise for people at mid-life. When they list all the moments in their life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – they begin to feel their life, and to see all it has been.

Most people’s list is full of amazing things because life is an amazing thing – getting stuck in an elevator, producing a video, quit biting my nails, stood up to my father finally, apologized to an old friend and said I was wrong, learned how to paint, read “War and Peace,” got an A+ on an exam, got fired, actually cleaned out the garage, got a date with Mary …

•Going Forward: The last step is to remind the client that part of their life is over, as of now, and the next part is beginning, as of now. There will be more things added to the list!

The final step is to process with the client what they've learned from this exercise.

This exercise accomplishes five things:

1. It helps the client define broad terms in ways they can use in their life.

2. It helps them see what a full life they’ve had.

3. It automatically defines their position as “in transition” or “in process” as the list will go on, and from this point forward they can do more of what gives them satisfaction, and less of what doesn’t.

4. Helps the client see that meaning is something personal, that we assign ourselves. If we depend upon the praise or acclamation of others, we are giving away our personal power and giving someone else the key to our happiness.

5. When processed, it teaches the clients how to correct the ways they think that make them unhappy.

Susan Dunn may be contacted at

Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, , Coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success. Coach Certification Program - fast, affordable, no-residency, training coaches worldwide. Email for free ezine.



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