Monday, February 25, 2013

Metaphors Can Die!

A colleague asked me how I use metaphors in change work. As I described eliciting and mirroring metaphors, I rather casually gave him an example: 
“You’ve said you want to be able to distinguish between falling into excitement, which carries passion and commitment, or falling into yearning, where you’re stuck in envy and unable to move forward. If I asked you what falling into excitement is like and you said ‘It’s like flying, like a bird in migration that ‘knows,’ follows its instincts,’ I would ask you to tell me more about that bird, and where you are in the picture. And you might say you’re flying, following the bird, and it’s an eagle.”
I then explained if he were my client, of course, his metaphor might be very different and it would be important to honor that because a metaphor is only potent if it’s alive for the person wanting the change. “But as soon as you mentioned eliciting a metaphor,” he said, “I thought of flying!”  

In his next email he wrote, “Thanks for an enlightening conversation. There is a subtle excitement in me... like the feeling I feel just before flying in a dream... a warm light that tries to burst from my chest... pulling me forward... a child's spirit... a wisdom unmistakably ancient... an eagle turning its smiling eye back at me... knowingly flapping its wings.. leaving a soothing breeze in its wake... I will follow it.”   

Unwittingly, I’d used a metaphor that was alive for him. But metaphors can be dead if they have no figurative value. Someone who sails might say, for example, “It’s like being on a sailboat in a heavy wind,” but continue the discussion in everyday language because the sailing image is literal and therefore dead as a metaphor. If the same person says “It’s like I’m balancing on top of a huge ice skate going very fast” this is probably a live metaphor. 

Listen for combinations of words that don’t fit known patterns of meaning – these are more likely to engage right-brain processes, and live on, as the eagle did for my friend.