Leadership and the power of metaphor

Metaphorical butterfly: orators and artists know how to use metaphors to ignite an emotional response in their audiences.

As a general rule it’s important to avoid ‘mind reading’ or assuming you know what another person is thinking, writes Dave Rawlings.

At first sight it might look like a variety of fake news, but “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable”, is the Oxford Dictionary definition of a metaphor. It’s a device that can be used to subtly mislead but is potentially far more useful than just that.

Winston Churchill’s iron curtain and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood are powerful images that impact harder and persist far longer than any precise, literal descriptions of the same ideas ever could. Orators and artists know how to use metaphors to ignite an emotional response in their audiences.

But how does that work and how is it relevant to business and personal development?

I can illustrate by first broadening the definition beyond a simple figure of speech. A whole story can be metaphorical when it conveys meaning beyond the narrow content and context of the narrative. This is what makes stories really useful in coaching, especially for someone who is stuck in an “unresourceful” state: unable to take action or to move on. These stories are usually deliberately vague or obscure in meaning so that they cause confusion in the listener. This state of confusion sets off an unconscious process of scanning memories to find things (anything) that seems relevant and helps to make sense of the story.

Here’s an example of such a story:

Once, a young man was selected to play for his national team. He was so young he had hardly had time to dream of playing at the highest level – and here he was.

His friends were thrilled, astounded and envious – all at the same time!

His selection coincided with the biggest tournament in the world. He was going to be thrust into the big time in the biggest possible way.

The day finally came when he was picked to start in a key match. When he heard the news he was ecstatic. But then, suddenly, his youthful confidence seemed to drain away. What if he wasn’t up to the challenge? What if he let everyone down? What if he made a fool of himself?

All of these questions went through his mind in an endless loop during the hours before the start. He managed to distract himself a little by getting outside to practise but the doubts continued to gnaw away inside him.

At last he was running out onto the field and joining the line-up. As the opponents’ anthem played he could see the faces of the opposing players on the big screen. The camera panned along the line and he looked into each of their faces in turn. He looked into their eyes.

Then he knew what he had to do…

Are you left with a mild sense of confusion? A feeling of dissatisfaction with the lack of a clear resolution? And isn’t there a lot of detail missing?

People will make their own connections and supply their own meaning to the words – pretty much guaranteeing that it will be significant to them.

If you read through the story again, check how much of the detail that you now have in mind is actually in the words. You have probably filled in an awful lot that isn’t really there. It’s apparent how the added details will depend on who is reading/listening. How different would it be for an English football fan compared with a New Zealand rugby follower? (Did you think it was about football? Does it say that anywhere?)

And, whilst you might not be able immediately to express what the story means, your unconscious mind will continue to work on it until it has made sense of it and slotted it into place. This is exactly the process that needs to occur to break a stuck state. The individual makes all kinds of discoveries and connections that mysteriously seem to have a bearing on the current problem. Suddenly the weight drops from their shoulders (another metaphor) and they find they can address the problem constructively.

As a general rule, and particularly in coaching, it’s important to avoid “mind reading”, or assuming you know what another person is thinking. So, this is where metaphor is so useful because you don’t need to know what your coachee is thinking to help them to move on. They will make their own connections and supply their own meaning to the words – pretty much guaranteeing that it will be significant to them.

Clearly the example above will resonate with sportspeople. But what about someone newly promoted in their company, perhaps over the heads of more experienced colleagues? Or someone standing in for the boss at an important meeting?

Next time you want to offer a few words of encouragement to a friend or colleague, perhaps you could tell them a story instead. For them, the experience could be dramatic, like stepping to one side and suddenly seeing the path ahead…

But that’s another story!


rawlings-vb2Email: david@changeworkcoaching.com
Headline image credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock.com