Research Paper By Elle Wilks
(Life Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
Introduction and objective
I have always been fascinated by how our use of language – our choice of words – influences the way we see, experience and describe the world and ourselves. The more experienced I become as a coach, the more I am drawn to exploring how we, as coaches, can better understand the language choices of our clients so we can not only make sure we are communicating in an accessible and aligned way, but also so we can scratch a layer under the surface of their words and dig around for deeper meaning and understanding.
Language is multi-faceted and complex, but one aspect of it that has always intrigued me is how we use metaphor – specifically, how we as coaches can identify, unravel and leverage our clients’ metaphors to support their greater learning and development. For me personally, I see, feel and hear in metaphor. The most complicated and intricate theories become crystal clear when I can frame them in metaphorical terms. I use metaphors to describe everything – what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling, what I’m imagining. They are the way I can make sense of the world and, in turn, make sense of it for someone else. My undergraduate university dissertation explored how mental health practitioners use metaphor among themselves and with their patients, revealing that without exception metaphor was an integral part of how this group explained and shared their experiences, beliefs, perceptions and ideas. Having read widely around this topic then and since, it seems clear these findings translate more generally across society. Knowing this, my question is: how can we, as coaches, best harness the power of metaphor with our clients?
What is a metaphor?
Metaphor appears as the instinctive and necessary act of the mind exploring reality and ordering experience. John Murray
In very basic terms, a metaphor is one person’s description of something being ‘like’ something else – we might say ‘He came into the room like a tidal wave’ or ‘My headache felt like a thousand hammers inside my skull’. We can go back to Carl Jung’s work on the unconscious to give us further clarity on the importance and fundamentalism of metaphors – there is a point of perception beyond which our conscious knowledge cannot pass. When we get down to this level, we meet our unconscious, which is constantly processing, interpreting, sorting and storing our world in its own way, full of symbols and images. Jung argued that analysis of these symbols and forms, through connecting with our unconscious, would open the door to a much deeper and more profound understanding of ourselves, our relationships and our world. Our everyday use of metaphors is one of the simplest and most powerful ways we can start to decipher some of this unconscious wisdom and perception.
In the last 35 years, the research of many neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and linguists has converged to form a new, holistic understanding of the way out mind works – crucially, our use of metaphor was embedded in their findings. In their article in Therapy Today (the journal of the BACP) in 2005, Penny Tompkins, Wendy Sullivan and James Lawley postulated that this research, and their own clinical experience, culminated in the following conclusions:
- Metaphor is far more common in everyday language than we first realised. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without them.
- Typically, neither the speaker nor the listener is consciously aware of the metaphors they use or the frequency with which they use them.
- Metaphor is more than a flowery linguistic device – it is central to the way we think, interpret the world, and make decisions.
- Metaphors are personal – they are not arbitrary. They are drawn from how we each experience our own bodies and minds and how they interact with the world around us.
- While people may use similar metaphors or common themes, when they explain them and unpick them, what is revealed is personal and idiosyncratic to them.
- The way a person uses metaphor has a coherent logic that is unique to them and consistent over time.
- Once a person settles on a metaphor, there are logical consequences and a natural framework that follows (for example – ‘I see the light at the end of the tunnel’ could be explored further in terms of how far away the light is, how the person might reach it, what the tunnel is like for them right now, etc.)
It is estimated that a person uses a metaphor in everyday language once every 25 seconds. If you are tuned in to detect them, or are consciously listening out for them, you’ll be amazed at how many suddenly come into focus – like when you look at the air in front of a brightly sunlit window and train your eyes to spot the tiny dust motes gently hovering there! They were always there, but until you concentrated on seeing them, you didn’t realise how many or notice their patterns. (The irony of how many metaphors are littered throughout this article is not lost on me – are you perhaps more conscious of them now too?)
The role of metaphor in coaching
For our purposes in coaching, we use the term metaphor as a symbol that captures or represents qualities of our clients and of the journey he or she is making. Myths, archetypes, natural phenomena, animals and common objects may all serve as metaphors. Simon Maryan
In the 1980s, psychologist David Grove was working with traumatic memory patients. He discovered that people tended naturally to speak in metaphor when describing their experiences. After focused research and experimentation, he concluded that the most effective treatment was to honour their metaphors by asking open questions which reflected their exact words – he developed this into something he called ‘clean language’, which is essentially a way for us to avoid contaminating the language and perception of our clients. We are simply noticing the words they are using, drawing their attention to the metaphors, holding up a mirror to the shapes and symbols that are released. We provide a framework for the client to bring awareness to their language, and to explore their own personal interpretations.
People will, of course, naturally use metaphor to different degrees and in different ways – for some people, they are woven throughout their everyday language in a tight pattern. For others, they may be used for bringing clarity to more abstract or alien concepts or feelings. In general, people will employ metaphors to:
- Describe emotionally charged events
- Express something abstract in more concrete and accessible terms
- Capture the whole or the essence of an experience
- Condense a lot of data or examples into one concept
- Highlight the importance, vividness or richness of a situation
- Use imagery to describe their feelings and other internal states
Skilled execution of Grove’s clean language questions can enable coaches to:
- Develop an understanding of how to enter a client’s inner world through metaphors and help them explore issues and reach solutions from a deeper source of knowledge
- Use clean questions to focus attention where it is most likely to encourage a shift in thinking
- Converse within the logic, or ‘frame’, of the metaphor
- Support clients in turning an abstract feeling or vague concept into a powerful metaphor
- Identify solution focused metaphors as opposed to metaphors of the ‘problem’
- Help our clients make transformational changes
As a coach, I believe that metaphor can capture the essence of the subjects our clients choose to bring to coaching in a way that nothing else can. A metaphor contains within it a whole world of association, perception and information which is rich, lingering and more powerful than any literal description. Even when the words have faded, the imagery from a metaphor stays with us and continues to open up new layers of questioning and understanding. I feel it is important that we use metaphors as a lens on the coaching issues, not directly on the client – in this way, we can apply focus and depth on the specific areas our clients bring to the sessions. As NLP and behaviourist coach Simon Maryan asserts,
If we confuse the metaphor for the person, we obscure from sight the person’s multidimensionality, the full mystery of who he or she is.
Practical applications within coaching
Metaphor is the language of our intuition. Simon Maryan
When NLP practitioner Angela Dunbar first experienced metaphors in a coaching session (as a client), she was amazed by the experience: “I went into the first session with my normal, logical thinking patterns, and came out with a completely different awareness of life, the universe and myself… I was in total awe of my own internal metaphoric representations, and amazed at how deeply I was affected by them.” So what exactly happened in that session?
Quite simply, through a process of clean language and deep exploration, Dunbar was able to verbalise and experience new parts of herself in a powerful, creative way. She was able to create her metaphors, understand them, reframe them, learn from them and rely on them as part of a coaching process to develop a new routine of self-affirmation and awareness. It is widely agreed that there are 12 key ‘coaching questions’ that can help us to support our clients in developing a metaphor, grouped into seven categories:
- Attributes: What kind of [X] is that? Is there anything else about that [X]?
- Location: Where do you feel that [X]?
- Metaphor: When you say [X], what is that like?
- Relationship: What is the relationship between [X] and [Y]? And when [X] happens, what happens to [Y]?
- Sequence: What happens before [X]? Then what happens?
- Source: And where does/could [X] come from?
- Intention: What needs to happen for [X] to [fulfil intention of X]? How can [X] [fulfil intention of X]?
In basic terms, coaches can use the above to follow four steps:
- Identify a metaphor: Some clients will spontaneously use explicit metaphors, others may be more implicit.
- Develop the metaphor: Sometimes just two or three of the clean language questions are enough at this stage.
- Work with the metaphor: Staying entirely within the logic and ‘frame’ of the metaphor, dig deeper and use more of the clean language questions to follow the natural evolution.
- Develop changes: At some point, the metaphor will begin to change and evolve – use clean language to develop this further, ultimately leading to a new way of thinking of a new perception about an issue.
I think it is important to note that, while metaphors create insight and open doors to new perceptions, they can also create ways of not seeing. In the same way they can liberate and empower, they can inhibit and trap. They can be a tool for creativity, or a prison cell. Being able to identify whether a metaphor is problem focused or solution focused is a great way to ensure you are using metaphors in a way that empowers your clients to unlock new experiences and develop greater awareness.
One of my early clients came to coaching to address her perceived inability to ‘go with the flow’, especially at work – she wanted to unpick and explore her need for control and knowledge, certainty and impatience, in order to experience life at a more organic and pleasurable pace. She described herself as hitting one brick wall after another, constantly climbing a mountain with an ever-moving peak, running on a never-ending treadmill. The sense of desperation, futility, discomfort and disappointment from her metaphors was palpable. By working through what these metaphors meant to her and then focusing on the solution metaphors instead of the problem metaphors, she set herself the goal of becoming more like a mountain stream – the pace and direction are fluid, it’s not always a direct line, but it’s constant movement towards the finish line in a very natural, gravity-assisted way. By working on visualisations of this new metaphor, she was able to slowly explore a strategy for its implementation and tactics for keeping herself on track. By grounding herself in the thoughts, feelings, sensations and ‘essence’ of her new metaphor, she had a solid rock to keep returning to in moments of uncertainty and pressure.
One of the most interesting applications of working with metaphor in this way was how applicable and insightful unpicking the initial metaphors were – the brick wall, the treadmill and the moving mountain. What other characteristics about these images, other than those the client was immediately describing, were also relevant? Take the mountain – what other characteristics of this mountain might she share that were part of the reason she was drawn to this imagery? Ideas of isolation, hostile conditions, steep edges, unexpected obstacles all started to find their way into the light – all things she felt were reflections of parts of herself and linked to how she felt she was perceived (and perceived herself) in the workplace. But also look at the more positive connotations she was able find – solidity, steadfastness, endurance, beauty. These were things she was also able to ‘own’ as part of her coaching journey.
Metaphors are mirrors, giving us a rich and insightful way to articulate intricate and complex concepts – but they also turn the light on in dusty rooms we hadn’t thought to look in, illuminating new things waiting to be discovered, waiting to be led by the hand into the conscious awareness by the client’s original metaphor. All clients will use metaphors, whether they are explicit, implicit or both. Working with metaphors can be incredibly powerful when you are addressing deeply entrenched issues which a client has felt ‘stuck’ with for a long time – offering a new way to unlock the prison cell and release a newfound creativity and perspective.
Dunbar, A. (2005). Using metaphors with coaching. Bulletin of the Association for Coaching
Maryan, S. (2011). The use of metaphors in coaching. Blog post: www.gomentor.com
Murray, J. (1932). Countries of the Mind. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd
Tompkins, P, Sullivan, W. and Lawley, J. (2005) Tangled spaghetti in my head: Making use of metaphor. Therapy Today, BACP