Metaphor in coaching: how to use them?

What is the meaning and definition of Metaphor? And why and how to use metaphor in coaching? In addition, what is Clean Language and the 12 essential questions in Clean Language? Furthermore, how clean language can support metaphor in coaching? At last, how does the Speed Boat workshop from Innovation Games use metaphor?

To warm up, couple facts about metaphors

The light at the end of the tunnel: a common metaphor to illustrate the meaning of what is a metaphor
  • Metaphors are everywhere in everyday language. For instance, it is nearly impossible to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without using metaphors.
  • Usually neither speaker nor listener are aware of the metaphors being used.
  • Metaphor is more than a linguistic device. Surely, it is central to the way people think, make sense of the world and take decisions.
  • Metaphors are not used arbitrarily. Indeed, they are mostly drawn from how people experience their body and how they interact with their environment.
  • And last not least, when a person’s basic metaphor changes so does their view of the world, the decisions they make and the actions they take. Clearly, this gives a clue how using metaphor can actually be a powerful coaching tool to make people change and not just to make them reach awareness.

What is the definition of metaphor?

A metaphor can be viewed as simply one person’s description of something as “like” something else.

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s in Metaphors We Live By

This definition stresses out the key characteristics of the metaphor:

  • Metaphor is about capturing the essential nature of an experience.
  • It is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world around us.
  • There is a need not limit the Metaphor to verbal expressions. A metaphor can include any expression or thing that is symbolic for a person, be that nonverbal behavior, an image, a logo…

A metaphor captures a huge amount of abstract and essential information in a tangible and concise way. It is a powerful tool for communication and for change.

The most common sources of metaphors are:

  • The human body (including health and illness)
  • Living things (e.g. animals, plants)
  • People-made things (e.g. buildings, machines, tools)
  • Human activities (e.g. games, sport, war, money, cooking, food)
  • The environment (e.g. heat, cold, light, darkness)
  • Physics (e.g. space, forces, movement, direction)

Why using metaphors in coaching?

The coachee’s metaphors give to the coach an insight into their unique perception of their situation and their goals. When the coachee tells you that they can “see light at the end of the tunnel”, that is what they are experiencing.

There is much more and this is where the power of metaphor comes in. In fact, the coachee will know, what needs to happen for them to move towards the light and get out of the tunnel. Even if the answer come in pure metaphor, the person’s “real” perception of their tangible situation will shift as their perception of the metaphor evolves and alters.

Metaphor is not the only tool in coaching but it is definitively a powerful one.

How to use metaphors for coaching?

Leveraging metaphors for coaching requires a specific approach and language:

  • First you need to identify a metaphor used by a client. It is estimated that the average person uses a metaphor every 30 seconds when talking. If you start to listen to the language a person is using, metaphors will jump out at you.
  • Then you should leverage it, using the Symbolic Modelling as developed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley based on David Grove’s clean language process:
    • Ask questions to find out what the coachee wants.
    • Ask questions to find out what needs to happen for them to get there.
    • If problems, barriers or blocks are identified, ask questions to find out what needs to happen to overcome them.

Of course in order to preserve the coachee metaphor from the coach interference, the use of Clean Language is mandatory. Clean Language questions are special because, they only ask the client to add to their own understanding. As a matter of fact, they do not re-frame or make suggestions. In addition, they can be used in a wide range of circumstances: to solve problems, to plan, to create new ideas, and as a method for research and interviewing.

What is Clean Language?

Clean Language was created by David Grove in the 1980s as a result of his work on clinical methods for resolving clients’ traumatic memories. He realized that many clients were describing their symptoms in metaphors drawn from the words of previous therapists, instead of from their own experience.

Clean Language assists coachees in finding and building their own symbols and metaphors, instead of the coach or the therapist suggesting or contributing. Instead of supporting the coachee by offering them ready-made metaphors, the coach or the therapist uses Clean Language. Really, this language is clean of any of coach’s or therapist’s interference as they ask questions that are just elaborating on the coachee’s input without adding any content.

So Clean Language questions are, like powerful questions, a tool to dig the coachee’s will, needs and intention, the difference is that they are dedicated to metaphor exploration. In addition, have a look on my post on the GROW Model and powerful questions to learn more about this typical approach in coaching.

What are the 12 essential questions in Clean Language?

In the following questions [x,y] stand for the coachee’s exact words.

Developing questions

  • And is there anything else about [x] ?
  • And what kind of [x] is that ?
  • And where/whereabouts is [x] ?
  • And that’s [x] like what?
  • And is there a relationship between [x] and [y] ?
  • And when [x], what happens to [y] ?

Moving time questions

  • And what happens just before [event x] ?
  • And then what happens ? / And what happens next ?
  • And where could/does [x] come from ?

Intention questions

  • And what would you/[x] like to have happen ?
  • And what needs to happen for [x] to [intention of x] ?
  • And can [x] [intention of x] ?

How does the Speed Boat workshop from Innovation Games use Metaphor?

The speed boat is an Innovation Game commonly used in in Agile coaching. It is actually a sail boat leveraging notions shared by all coachees with the following elements illustrating:

  • The island, the target, the appealing desired state
  • The sail boat, the one team, unified to overcome the challenge of the journey through the ocean
  • The sail, the strengths of the team, the propellers to catch the winds of opportunity
  • The anchor, the weaknesses of the team
  • The rocks emerging, the dangers or risks to avoid

What’s next? Learn more about Coaching and discover Change Management

Read my other posts on coaching for instance on trust, feedback and active listening, on the GROW Model and the Powerful questions and on Change Management. Learn also how metaphors are used in Solution Focus Coaching.

Do you want to learn more about metaphors in coaching? Here are some valuable references

Sources and references of this post:

Reference books:

The icon illustrating the light at the end of the tunnel:

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