Metaphorically Speaking

November 2010

Just the other day, I was asked to think of a metaphor that describes my coaching work.  What immediately came to mind was a mountain trail, winding up through the woods. Some parts of the trail are steep and treacherous; at other times the path levels out into rolling meadows. Trees might obscure the view, or sometimes even block out all but the faintest light. After miles of hard hiking uphill, breathtaking vistas can be seen from high points along the way. As I described this metaphor, I felt physically a part of it. I could feel my strength building as I make my way up the mountain. The dark scary times are outweighed by the exhilaration and beauty of the climb. That is how I see myself in my coaching business: tough times that strengthen me, stretches of being in the dim woods followed by ah-ha’s of light and new perspective, a steady path upward towards new learning. The person I was talking with immediately understood me and my professional journey. Thus is the power of a metaphor.

I often use metaphors in my work with clients. Once, while trying to explain the three different levels of listening to a manager of a video and technical communications department, I asked him to imagine the difference in how he views a movie and how a lay person might view it. The regular movie-goer probably just notices the actors, the story line, and action shots. Whereas my client sees nuances in lighting, camera angles, dialogue, segues between scenes, blocking, pacing, and a bunch of other stuff he is trained to notice. This metaphor enabled him to suddenly grasp what “Level 3” listening means, compared to the other two levels. He realized the value to him as a manager that learning to listen at a deep level would bring, and resolved to learn more about the art of listening.

We can use metaphors to remind us of desired actions or needed skills. For instance, I recently suggested to a client that instead of behaving in ways that only took her to “nowhere good” (her words), imagine she is waiting for a bus. She would never dream of hopping on a bus to a place she did not want to go; she would just let the wrong bus pass on by. So now, she “lets the bus go by” when she wants to forgo old habits that don’t serve her. An entrepreneur might use the metaphor of a football running back to remind himself that a combination of determination and flexibility is needed when trying to start up a company. A running back is very determined to get downfield, but at any given moment may have to go sideways or even backward to get there. Anyone who has ever tried to get a company off the ground can identify.

What metaphors do you use in your life? What do the metaphors you choose say about you? How do they help you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Meanwhile, have a happy Thanksgiving.

Sharon Keys Seal

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