Sentence Completion Exercises — Guiding Readers to Insight and Action

Sentence completion is an under-used tool for helping readers gain insight and change behavior. The trick is to structure these exercises for impact.

Start with an incomplete sentence (stem) that begs for completion. For example:

  • My parents speak through my voice when I tell myself…
  • Sometimes I undermine myself when I…
  • An effective way to handle anger might be to…
  • The very next action I will take to achieve my goal is…
  • The habit that I most want to change right now is…

hand-notebook-outdoors-34072Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden has written a lot about sentence completion. He offers these examples:

  • To me, self-responsibility means…
  • When I look at what I do to impress people…
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive when I…
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I…
  • If I want to grow in independence, I will need to…
  • It is slowly and reluctantly dawning on me that…

When done well, sentence completion encourages people to bypass their internal censors and express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings.

Sentence completion can also guide readers to go beyond vague intentions to specific and concrete plans for new behaviors.

Other formats for sentence completion

You can use sentence completion in guiding readers to create  implementation intentions. These are statements that pair an environmental cue with a specific planned behavior. For example:

When I get my paycheck, I will deposit 10 percent of it in my savings account.

The syntax for these sentences is: When… I will….

Another option is creating sentences with the syntax of  Tiny Habits. This is a strategy for behavior change based on the work of BJ Fogg  at Stanford University.

A Tiny Habit links an existing habit with a “baby step” — a simple new behavior that takes 30 seconds or less. For example:

After I walk in the door from work, I will hug my wife.

Here the syntax is: After I… I will….

Getting the most from sentence completion

Give your readers suggestions for turning sentence completion into a rewarding long-term practice:

  • Copy the stems to a personal journal. The goal is to build a written record of your responses so that you can review them at the end of the week. Every day, copy the sentence stems into your paper-based journal or a document on your computer. Leave space beneath each stem for writing. Then write 6 to 10 endings directly below each sentence stem.
  • Complete sentence stems quickly — without stopping to revise. If the day’s writing takes more than 10 minutes, then you are censoring yourself or otherwise overthinking the process. Remember that sentences don’t have to be profound or accurate. Your aim is simply to expand each stem into grammatically complete sentence. If your mind goes blank, just invent an ending —  anything.
  • Focus on a small number of stems each week. Complete the same sentence stems each day, Monday through Friday. Keep the number of stems limited — 4 to 7 per week.)
  • Write sentence completions early in the day. Whenever possible, do them in the morning before you start the day’s business.
  • Fresh start each day’s writing. Do not read the sentences you wrote on a previous day. Repetitions from day to day are fine.
  • During the weekend, sum up the week’s writing. Review your sentence completions, looking for themes and major insights. Then write at least 6 endings for this stem:  If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I…
  • Notice the effects of writing. After your 10 minutes or so of writing each day, go ahead with your planned activities. Stay alert to any changes in your thinking, emotions, or behavior that seem related to your writing.

Branden notes that the daily practice of sentence completion takes people naturally from insight to application:

Doing sentence completion on a daily basis as described here is a kind of psychological discipline, a spiritual practice, even, that over time achieves insight, integration, and spontaneous behavior change. People sometimes ask, “How do I integrate the things I am learning in sentence completion?” The answer is that practice itself, done repetitively, brings about the integration.

That’s a big claim, and it’s worth testing.

To learn more about sentence completion, check out:

Do you want to write a book that will help people create positive new outcomes in their lives? I can help you produce a finished manuscript that’s grounded in principles of adult learning and behavior change. For more information, email me at doug.toft@gmail.com

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