You might read headlines in the newspaper such as “watching TV leads to depression” or “poor sleep habits linked to suicide risk” or “Justin Bieber is a train-wreck in progress”. All of these headlines are designed to grab your attention, summarize hours of research into a bite-sized piece of information (at least the first two), and lead you to a particular conclusion. While the truth of these statements is debatable, one thing they all have in common is their use of operational definitions.

Operational definitions may not be the ones you find in the dictionary but they are adopted for the purpose of investigating a question, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

For example, if a researcher is interested in determining which kind of pasta is the most delicious, they must first define the terms pasta and delicious. Does pasta refer only to noodle-based dishes from Italy or does it include noodles from other regions such as Southeast Asia, India, or Japan? Should we include pasta dishes with sauce or without sauce? Should there be a limit to the ratio of sauce to pasta? How do we measure delicious? Can we objectify something as subjective as taste preference? Is it sufficient to ask taste-testers to rate deliciousness on a scale of 1-10 or should we increase or reduce the scale? Should we attempt to quantify delicious into identifiable units so as to compare one dish to another? Did I really go to school all of those years to study pasta?

Operational definitions attempt to come up with a controlled understanding of the things we are investigating. These definitions do not pretend to be perfect or all-inclusive. They merely allow the researchers (and their critical readers) to have a common frame of reference.

Operational definitions are not just limited to use in research studies; we all use them every day. We just don’t know that our definition is operational. We assume that other share the same definition and therefore also assume that when I use a particular phrase, the other person knows exactly what I’m talking about.

I once met a man who, despite being an alcoholic for more than 40 years and being married to the same woman throughout that time, claimed that he and his spouse had never had a single fight. I found this somewhat difficult to believe and told him so. He was adamant that they had never fought with each other. At our next appointment, he began to tell me about a serious argument that he had engaged in with his wife. I remarked to him that he must have been disappointed to break their decades-long streak of harmony (with just a hint of sarcasm). He looked puzzled. I pointed out to him that he had previously claimed that they had never fought before and now they had. He still looked puzzled. Then it occurred to me to ask him what he meant by the word ‘fight’. “Well,” he answered, “I’ve never punched her.” I pointed out that I was referring to disagreements and arguments. He laughed and said that they argued constantly and that she was a major contributor to his drinking problem. It was a lesson in communication that brought this point home with great force. Don’t assume that you share the same operational definition as the person with whom you are communicating.

Uh... Jimmy. It's just an expression...

Uh… Jimmy. It’s just an expression…

So, if you want to make sure that you are communicating the message the way you intend, why not give this a try:

Make a list of words and phrases that you commonly use when communicating with the other person and share with each other your definition of the terms. The purpose is not to come to an agreement on a definition but to highlight any differences that exist. If your partner says that you never listen and you think they are totally off-base, chances are you define the word “listen” differently. If you discover this to be the case, don’t use that word anymore, but use a word that more accurately describes your particular definition of the term, such as “You never do what I ask you to do”. While this clarification may not end an argument, it will at least keep it on the right topic, which is half the battle.