A little fish with your bicycle? Metaphor menus in coaching

I love metaphors — I love playing with language and being playful is something I really enjoy. Recently I came across a BBC documentary podcast on metaphors and language used by people experiencing cancer to describe their experience.

As you may notice, the above expression: “people experiencing cancer” is metaphor free. Even if i had written: “Cancer survivor” or “to describe what they are going through”, I would have introduced a metaphor:

  • Cancer is a life-threatening event and you are trying to survive (instead of “live with” or “co-exist peacefully”, for example)
  • Cancer is a journey that you can go through (instead of “a pause in my life”, for example)

Every metaphor we use offers different possibilities of viewing the situation and of doing something about it.

  • If you are trying to “survive”, the options for doing something will be in the active area, “doing something to survive”. If you are “living with”, the options are  more passive or in the “making peace with” area
  • If it is “a journey” you have travelling companions or might look for them, etc.

The generic metaphor is “fight”, “battle” cancer, but that might not be the right metaphor for every person experiencing it. The BBC documentary talked about an approach created by Elena Semino which offers people “a metaphor menu”. You can download it here: Metaphor Menu

Different people with similar experiences were asked to provide their most useful metaphors and others could consciously choose their favorite one, change it, play with it, and — I presume — therefore find some agency in a situation that does not offer you much, otherwise (or maybe that’s my metaphor coming in here).

I would love to collect a metaphor menu for goals people commonly have in coaching:

  • being calm and relaxed when there is a lot to do
  • re-creating a good relationship after a conflict or resolving it (which is already a metaphor)
  • creating harmony when there a different working styles or ethics
  • staying positive and hopeful when the future is uncertain
  • being deliberate about taking up new leadership position
  • feeling self-confident about something

The metaphors can be about the problem (e.g. “when I have a lot to do, I feel like I am in a storm”) and about what is wanted instead (e.g. “I want to be the eye of the storm”).

For me, the most important thing is that clients choose what metaphor works for them and that we invite them to choose. If not, the danger is that the dominant, single story (e.g. “fighting cancer”) takes over and robs people of their choices. As Heinz von Förster said: “Act always to increase the number of choices”.

If you would like to explore more about metaphors (and “exploring” is another of those 🙂 ) come to one of our regular coaching meetups and exchange:

>>> www.solutionsacademy.com/registration <<<​​


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