By Marian Way & Phil Swallow
If you're anything like us, you find metaphor fascinating, elegant, sometimes astonishing.
When we're working with clients or training people in Clean Language, we often catch each other's eye when we hear someone describing their experience with a particularly arresting metaphor. Sometimes we say aloud what we're thinking: 'Aren't people amazing!'
You might think we'd be used to it by now. Yes, we appreciate how metaphor is central to the way we think, yes, it is a great way to encapsulate a large amount of information in a small package, yes again, it's 'one kind of thing represented in terms of another'. We know all that - and people still have the capacity to delight and astound us with the creativity of their metaphors.
We know it's not just us who have this reaction. Our clients often comment on their own metaphors ('that's weird', ''oh, I like that one', 'wow, where did that come from?'). Even people who start out thinking of metaphors as mere 'figures of speech' often change their minds when they start to explore the inherent truths in their own symbolic language.
How – and why - do we choose the metaphors we use?
Twice recently Marian has worked with clients who’ve likened their experience to hitting a brick wall – splat! - a bit like a cartoon character. How come two strangers had such similar metaphors?
As we work with Clean Language to help people unpack their own unique metaphors, we notice that these often fit together logically, representing some underlying structure to the way they are thinking. The individual metaphors stand out like the multiple peaks of a large, mostly submerged iceberg. The whole structure may not be visible but may be inferred by the presence of the parts.
What's even more interesting is that these underlying thinking structures seem to be appear as common themes that appear time and again – and in different people.
Probably the most common of these is journey, revealed in a person's language by phrases like:
- We're off to a good start
- Let's cross that bridge when we come to it
- There’s light at the end of the tunnel
- From there on in, it was plain sailing
- You should steer clear of him
- No, thanks, I’ve been down that road before
- My life has ground to a halt
Metaphorical themes are a feature of Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman. In their book, they differentiate between 'surface metaphors', 'metaphorical themes' and 'deep metaphors'.
Taking the first example above, in the Zaltman's model, 'a good start' is a surface metaphor, the metaphorical theme is one of moving through life and the deep metaphor is a fundamental presupposition that 'life is a journey'.
As a result of their research with consumers of many different products, in many different countries, the Zaltmans have identified just seven deep metaphors which seem to underpin much of our thinking. These are: balance; transformation; journey; container; connection; resource; and control.
Here we will focus on the journey metaphor and some ways of spotting when this metaphor is at work. We also give examples of how clients' journey metaphors changed for the better and how you might go about changing any unhelpful metaphors of your own.
People who operate out of a journey metaphor apply it to all walks of life: careers, marriage, learning, friendship, having children, going on a reality show – even life itself. This is not surprising: before 1200 the word was ‘journee’ and meant ‘passage through life’. This in turn came from the Old French word ‘journée’, a day’s work or travel.)
Sometimes our use of this metaphor is not deep at all, but explicit, as in these quotes:
- "The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.” (Don Williams, Jr.)
- “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Confucious)
- “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Other times, we may not use the word journey itself, but the metaphor is obvious, nonetheless:
- “It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path.” (Paulo Coelho)
- “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled.” (Robert Frost)
- “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.” (Joseph Campbell)
Remember the examples above? We know these metaphors are all examples of journeys since they all presuppose a starting point and an end point and that there is some way of getting from one to the other. But a metaphor doesn’t have to be as explicit as these. A simple word or phrase (often a verb or a preposition) can indicate a journey metaphor. A teacher may talk about getting through a curriculum; a couple may embark on a new life together; a coach may say they are making progress with a client.
When we’re working with clients, it’s often these less obvious or 'embedded' metaphors that are the way-in to helping someone to notice the metaphorical theme that is at play. When they recognise this unconscious, underlying structure to their thinking, they are empowered to make choices about it, including changing it if they wish. Here are a couple of examples:
Keeping Meetings on Track
Marian worked with a manager who said he wanted his meetings to stay on track. He was unaware of the metaphorical nature of this phrase, even though he was using his hands to indicate a ‘track’ stretching out in front of him.
When she invited him to pay attention to this phrase, he developed a metaphor of a steam train, running along a single, fairly short track. The train would stop and all the passengers would get out, the train would leave and then return to collect the next group of people.
As he described this, the manager realised that this was not what he wanted at all. No wonder he was struggling with meetings: he was trying to get everyone to agree with him in as short a time as possible and then leave.
So he redesigned the train track, and its surroundings. He added a village with a salesperson talking to influential people about what kind of journey they’d like. He employed a guard who kept passengers happy and a train driver with a timetable who could communicate with the guard and stop at additional stations if necessary.
Once he’d fully developed the new landscape, Marian helped him check that everything was feasible. It was and then he was ready to put his new plans into action.
Back at work, he became open to incorporating others’ suggestions and looking for mutually beneficial outcomes. Everyone got a say and his meetings ran more smoothly - they 'stayed on track'!
Shorter, More Effective Meetings
Phil worked with a managing director who wanted her meetings to be shorter and more effective. In the session it quickly became clear from phrases like 'going off-piste' and the way she was using her hands and eyes to indicate a way ahead that this was another journey metaphor.
Again, by working cleanly within the underlying metaphorical theme, the manager found a way to turn what had been off-piste excursions on irrelevant matters into small deviations from course with a rapid return to the business of the meeting. Meetings became shorter and more to the point and allowed more time after business had been concluded for the fun of an off-piste chat after the meeting.
Journey Metaphors are Everywhere
Read a newspaper or a book, listen to TV or people speaking, you will here the underlying theme occurring time and time again.
In Teaching in Mind, Judy Yero points out that it’s common in education for people to think about knowledge as though it is a landscape to be covered with the goal of picking up pieces of knowledge as you go along. She says that this unconsciously creates a frame in which some behaviors and perceptions (e.g. it’s important to complete the journey and pick up all correct the bits of knowledge) are encouraged and others (e.g. whether concepts are fully understood, bits of knowledge that aren’t on the curriculum) are seen as less important.
Judy encourages teachers to reflect on their metaphors (and therefore their beliefs and values) so they can consider their impact and decide whether there may be a more useful way of viewing things.
If you’re interested in exploring your own underlying metaphor themes or those of someone else, here's a simple exercise that will help you do so.
Level 1: Looking for journey metaphors
- Take a sample of written material, e.g. a website or pamphlet that sets out what you do or a transcript made after taping part of a meeting. If you don't have these, you could take a newspaper clipping.
- Are there any words, phrases or metaphors that indicate a journey metaphor? Underline them or make a list.
- Do the same with a second and a third sample – can you see a pattern?
- What is being likened to a journey?
- If “______” is like a journey, what aspects of the experience does the metaphor describe?
- What aspects of the experience does the metaphor not describe?
- What other metaphor theme could be used to describe the experience?
Level 2: Looking for other metaphors
- Same as Level 1 except you are looking for any underlying metaphorical theme, not just journey.
Please use the comments box below to add your experiences and ideas.
PS What metaphorical themes did you notice in this article?