Change Work May 2009

It depends on how you look at it

It's a long time since I talked about metaphors in one of these articles - nearly 2 years in fact (Change Work June 2006). So it's definitely time for a re-visit.

The term "metaphor" is commonly used in two different senses.  One is the application of a descriptive phrase to something when it isn't literally applicable.  This makes writing or speech more interesting and conjures up images for the reader or listener that don't have to be described in detail.  For example, "like a bat out of hell" refers to something that no-one has actually seen (as far as I know!) and yet is very evocative.

You can try too hard though, as demonstrated by the following attempts at metaphor, reputedly from high school essays in the US:

She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and he was room temperature Canadian beef.

Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

Rather hurriedly leaving those pearls behind ...

... the other type of metaphor is the symbol used to represent something else - and that "something else" is usually not named explicitly.  In oratory it can be used to great effect: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent", was Churchill's metaphor for the relationship between the Soviet Union and the western powers immediately after the Second World War.  He went on to describe what he meant by this but I don't think he really needed to.

In coaching, a metaphor is often expanded to be a story that isn't obviously related to the problem at hand.  Such use of story/metaphor is very useful because it avoids the coach imposing their own ideas on the coachee.  On the contrary, the listener can't help but fill in the gaps according to their own interpretation.  They will also work, perhaps unconsciously, to resolve ambiguities and apparent contradictions, driven by their need to make sense of what they've heard.

This works because the meaning that the coachee gives to the story is inevitably related to the problem they're wrestling with.  And the oblique approach allows them to see connections and possibilities that their logical processing couldn't get to.

For example, sometimes you get stuck.  Not only can you not see the answer, or the way forward from where you are in life or work, but you can't imagine how there could even be an answer.  So what kind of change - in you - can break you free?

Perhaps a story will help!

Once I dreamt that I was lost in a forest.  I was looking for a special place  in the middle of the endless wood.  I didn't know what was there - perhaps some kind of answer - but I knew I had to find it!

I followed one track after another, but always seemed to come back to the same place.  At least it looked like the same place, but it was very difficult to tell in the featureless expanse of trees.

After what felt like days of wandering, with no clue as to the right direction, I finally came out into a clearing.  It was an area of short grass - almost like a lawn.  I stood at its centre and looked around.

The trees of the forest were of a type with long, bare trunks reaching up to a high canopy.  But they grew so close together that the trunks formed an impenetrable wall, right round the clearing.

As I stood in confusion, I suddenly felt my eyes drawn to a particular direction.  It was as though an inner force was controlling me. 

But the tree wall there was just as solid as everywhere else.

The harder I peered, the less I could see!

Then, the inner force urged me to step sideways - just two paces to my left. Miraculously, with that small change of perspective, the trees in front of me lined up!  Instead of a blank wall of wood, I could see the ends of two, parallel rows of slender trunks stretching away into the distance.  The gap between them formed a long, long vista.

And at the end of that avenue was a glint of gold as something bright caught the evening sun.

I set off towards it with a new hope ...

Let me know what connections you made from this!