What is a Metaphor?
When people experience change, both their metaphor and their life experience generally associated with it change in tandem. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,” write Lakoff and Johnson. Whenever one thing is described in terms of another, that’s a metaphor. This definition of metaphor includes similes, parables, analogies, parallels, literary metaphors, etc. The word ‘metaphor’ comes from the Greek ‘amphora’, a storage container used for transporting valuable goods. Since we use metaphor as a way to transport meaning from one kind of thing to another, the word ‘metaphor’ is itself a metaphor.
Why use them?
• Metaphors condense information, making things more tangible and easier to work with. Karl Weick once wrote, “People see more things than they can describe in words.”
• Metaphors can represent experience more fully than abstract concepts, and enable more effective communication.
• Metaphors allow us to think in deeper and more profound ways.
• Someone’s metaphor for an experience has a similar structure to the experience that it represents.
• Metaphors allow us to open not close thinking, to inspire and not restrict creativity. Also to invite others to discover complementary and related meanings and applications, transitioning from the left brain of words to the right brain of images, where it’s much easier to explore ideas. In Improv it’s called “Show not Tell”.
What can I do to use them more often?
You most likely already are. Whenever we compare one thing to another, whether we are aware of doing so or not, we are thinking in metaphor. And whenever we describe one thing in terms of another, we are speaking in metaphor. Metaphoric thought and metaphoric language go hand in hand.
• Look how far we’ve come.
• I can’t see the wood from the trees
• Three steps forward, two steps back
• This relationship is on the rocks
As human beings, we seem to be hardwired to think in metaphor, and to communicate using metaphor. And, as generations of storytellers, leaders and salespeople have discovered, we are also hardwired to respond to metaphor—often unconsciously.
Because we think in metaphor, we speak and write in metaphor. Everyday language is bursting with metaphor—it has been suggested that people use roughly six metaphors a minute in normal conversation. Our experience suggests we might use even more than this: almost all language is metaphorical at some level. Especially when we need to describe abstract, complex or emotional things we are likely to reach for the familiarity of a more concrete metaphor. Metaphors in language can be regarded as fitting into three categories: sensory, abstract or metaphoric. Distinguishing between sensory, conceptual and metaphoric information will help you to spot the metaphors that people use. Sensory information relates to the five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling/touching, tasting and smelling. The color, sound, texture and smell of the coins are all pieces of sensory information. Abstract information consists of concepts, thoughts and ‘labels’ which are not based in the senses and include categorizations and expressions of beliefs and emotions.
One way to get better at using them is to become aware more aware of them in yourself and others. Below are a couple of exercises you can practice.
Tune your radio to a talk station, or discreetly listen in to a conversation between two strangers, and just listen to the words. Don’t think about the implications of what they say, don’t speculate about the backgrounds or relationships of the speakers. Just keep your ears listening to the words.
Tuning in to metaphor 2 Now give yourself a new target. Count the metaphors! As well as the ‘sayings’, ‘commonplaces’ or ‘cliches’, which will usually be metaphors, notice whenever someone says, “It’s like …”. Should you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the words and to the metaphors. Tip: Almost all words that refer to space or force are metaphors e.g. ‘wandering’, ‘gently’, ‘bring back’.