Change Work June 2006

And the moral is ...

Metaphor: Application of name or descriptive term to an object to which it is not literally applicable (e.g. a glaring error).

We also use the term to describe the transfer of characteristics or principles from one situation to another. For instance, "The game of chess is a metaphor for war".

Stories can be metaphorical in that they convey meaning beyond the narrow content and context of the narrative.

They are often used in coaching, especially for someone who is stuck in an "unresourceful" state: unable to take action or to move on. These stories are usually deliberately vague or obscure in meaning so that they cause confusion in the listener. This state of confusion sets off an unconscious process of "scanning" memories to find things (anything!) that seems relevant and helps to make sense of the story.

This is exactly the process that needs to occur to break the stuck state. The individual makes all kinds of discoveries and connections that mysteriously seem to have a bearing on the current problem. Suddenly the weight drops from their shoulders (another metaphor!) and they find they can address the problem constructively.

Here's an example of such a story:

Once, a young man was selected to play for his national team. He was so young he had hardly had time to dream of playing at the highest level - and here he was.

His friends were thrilled, astounded and envious - all at the same time!

His selection coincided with the biggest tournament in the world. He was going to be thrust into the big time in the biggest possible way.

The day finally came when he was picked to start in a key match. When he heard the news he was ecstatic. But then, suddenly, his youthful confidence seemed to drain away. What if he wasn't up to the challenge? What if he let everyone down? What if he made a fool of himself?

All of these questions went through his mind in an endless loop during the hours before kick-off.

He managed to distract himself a little by getting outside to practise but the doubts continued to gnaw away inside him.

At last he was running out onto the pitch and joining the line-up up for the anthems. As the opponents' anthem played he could see the faces of the opposing players on the big screen. The camera panned along the line and he looked into each of their faces in turn. He looked into their eyes.

Then he knew what he had to do ...

Are you left with a mild sense of confusion? A feeling of dissatisfaction with the lack of a clear resolution? And isn't there a lot of detail missing?

If you read through the story again, check how much of the detail that you now have in mind is actually in the words. You have probably filled in an awful lot that isn't actually there. It's apparent how the added details will depend on who is reading/listening. How different would it be for an English football fan compared with a rugby-mad schoolboy in New Zealand? (Did you think it was about football? Does it say that anywhere?)

And, whilst you might not be able immediately to express what the story means, your unconscious mind will continue to work on it until it has made sense of it and slotted it into place.

One of the interesting features of metaphor used in this way is that the author doesn't need to know what "the moral" of the story is. The reader/listener supplies it themselves and what they come up with will be relevant to them at that particular time. Clearly the example above will resonate with sportspeople. But what about someone newly promoted in their company? Perhaps over the heads of more experienced colleagues? Or someone standing in for the boss at an important meeting?

What does it mean to you?