The word metaphor is from the Greek metapherein, which means to transfer or to change. For the purpose in coaching, I use the term metaphor as a symbol that captures or represents qualities of my client and of the journey he or she is making. Myths, archetypes, natural phenomena, animals, and common objects may all serve as metaphors. By way of distinction, metaphors are not are adjectives, literal descriptions, judgments, or assessments.
Metaphor is the language of archetypes, symbols, and essence. Because it is a language that is representative in nature, it simplifies and focuses perception. Our culture uses metaphors abundantly to capture an idea or essence. For example, we say things like: She has stars in her eyes; we are drowning in data; and, here’s some food for thought.
A a coach, I have found that using metaphors can capture the essence of the client and the coaching issue in a way that descriptions, cannot, because metaphors hold within them worlds of association and information. The pictures that metaphors paint are, indeed, worth a thousand words, because the images stay with us long after descriptions or data have faded from memory.
Although there are countless ways to use metaphors in coaching, I share my experiences with clients using metaphors in two primary application areas: assessment and practice design.
First, an important distinction: I use metaphor to capture and explore the client’s issue, not the client as a person. A metaphor is but a lens through which to see. Just as it focuses perception, it also limits it (Morgan, 1996). If I confuse the metaphor for the person, I obscure from sight the person’s multidimensionality, the full mystery of who he or she is. When used as a lens on the coaching issue, the metaphor provides the coach with useful focus and depth.
Metaphors have proven invaluable to me in gaining clarity about my clients and their coaching issues. For example, one of my clients had received feedback that she was seen as aggressive, arrogant, and prone to loss of control over her anger at home and in her workplace. Underneath this behaviour appeared to be an inability or unwillingness to yield, an orientation that she knew best and that her perspective was the right one. The metaphor we developed for the shift the client needed to make was to bring her from a dormant or dead oak tree to a weeping willow.
Another client came to me for leadership coaching. He seemed very together but had received feedback that he didn’t play the game according to the rules of the culture and didn’t connect well with peers and superiors. His superiors, however, thought he had the makings of a good leader. It was difficult at first to get any other impression besides how smooth and together this client seemed. Diagnostically, I used this feeling data” to uncover a metaphor that initially guided the coaching: tarp was the metaphor that surfaced. The shift that this client needed to make was to move from tarp: protective, tightly woven, and invulnerable, to tapestry: permeable, colourful, warm, yet solid.
These images were useful to me diagnostically, because they crystallised and simplified my understanding of my clients’ issues. Perhaps even more important about metaphors, however, is how much information they give back to us about the client issue. The oak to willow image was, first, a useful handle on my initial take. But what I found most amazing is how delving into the image itself could actually deepen my understanding significantly. For example, if we work with the image of oak, what else is true about an oak tree that might be true of this client? The oak holds onto many of its leaves in winter and even in death. What might this client need to let go of? The oak tree is associated with tremendous strength. Might this client be too strong, too forceful, for her own effectiveness? Then look at the weeping willow image. It sways in the wind. What might our client need to let move her? The willow weeps. Might grief be a component of the coaching journey?
Following the same brainstorming process, I began wondering about the tarp, metaphor. What was this image telling me about what I was seeing in this client’s dilemma? Tarp is efficient. This client was smooth, he did his job well, but he sensed that his superiors and colleagues were envious of him. How does that fit with tarp? That somehow they couldn’t relate? Couldn’t get through? Couldn’t see vulnerability? What else about tarp? It is useful when it is raining, but not that interesting to behold. Its texture doesn’t invite us in. What do tarps do that might relate to this client? It covers up, protects. Was this image pointing to the client’s need to raise the cover, go through life with less protection? Was this client efficient at the expense of being engaged in relationships? What is opposite of tarp? Tapestry. What does tapestry have that tarp, doesn’t? Rich texture, colour, a story, relief, warmth, weight. Can it still protect and cover? Yes, but in a different way.
As you can see, these simple images led me to many questions that might never have been explored otherwise, for metaphor is the language of our intuition. At once, it both captures reality and reveals mystery. It mirrors back to us what we already know about our clients’ issues and, yet, also shines a light on what else might be waiting to be discovered.
Metaphors have led me to ideas about practices that my left‑brain might not have revealed. For the first client, the oak‑willow metaphor itself was a very physical one and surfaced my intuition that the client herself might be very physically oriented. Therefore, I gave her the practice of learning aikido to give her a physical way to learn that meeting force with immovability was ineffective. In this case, I shared the metaphor with her and explored the word arrogance in the context the metaphor provided, since that was a major piece of the criticism she had received about herself at work. Arrogance comes from Latin, meaning absence of questioning. I asked her to look at the oak tree as more absolute in its stance and asked her to explore through the willow image where she might need to be more open to questioning her own assumptions or conclusions.
For the second client, the tarp, metaphor led me to develop a practice to help the client shed some of the protection that had been so vital to staying invulnerable. His first practice was a simple one of looking at the world through the eyes of others with whom he had significant contact each day. He was to imagine what they were feeling and to notice how he gathered clues about their reactions to him. He was also instructed to notice when he had a feeling connection to someone and to be as specific as possible in writing about how he thought that happened. As time went on, the metaphors proved invaluable, as I learned how much this client actually feared being in relationships with others and had found strategic ways to manage within them without giving himself away. The outcome metaphor, tapestry, helped me see a way to move forward with this client to help him create and embrace his own tapestry with its own rich colours, warmth, permeability, and stability.
The Metaphor-making Process
Metaphor making is fundamentally an intuitive process and for more intuitive coaches (for example, high Ns on the Myers‑Briggs Type Indicator), metaphors may come naturally and easily. However, I would like to make metaphors available to all coaches who would like greater access to their intuitive wisdom. The following five‑step process for accessing and working with metaphors id a great place to start.
Step 1: Be clear and open. The first step for any coach is to be clear and open when meeting your client. Listen, observe, notice your own internal reactions and what the client is not saying.
Step 2: Describe the client with regard to his or her issue. Bring the client to mind, and visualise them in the domain of life in which they are experiencing difficulty. Think about what they look like, sound like, and feel like to you. Think about their gestures, their posture, the sound of their voice, what they evoke in you when they describe their issue or their words. What three or four adjectives or phrases come to mind? If an image comes to mind at this point, you’ve got your metaphor. But if not, just work on getting a short description. Try not to censor what comes out. You’re done when you have three to four adjectives or phrases that feel like they really capture the client in their struggle.
Step 3: Free associate images with the adjectives. When you picture the client and the adjectives you’ve described them with, what images come to mind? Free associate. Don’t censor these. Note the first one(s) that come to mind. Try to work as little as possible in your rational mind. If nothing comes up, you can scan a few different areas: something from nature, characters from movies or books, myths from any culture, types of transportation, or household objects. Usually, your first images are good ones to work with. It often helps to come up with a ‘from’ image (one which captures the client as they currently relate to the world or their issue) and a ‘to’ image (one which captures the client operating as they would like to).
Step 4: Turn your focus away from the client and fully explore the metaphor. Now that you have your metaphor(s), forget about the client for a minute and simply delve into the images themselves. List all the attributes you can about them, What are the characteristics of your metaphors (for example, tarp and tapestry)? What characteristics distinguish the first image from the second? What would help something transform from the first state to the second? It is helpful to speak these associations out loud with a partner or write them down without worrying about making sense or expressing yourself eloquently.
Step 5: Bring the client back into focus. What did following the metaphor tell you about your client? In what new ways do you see the client and how you might work with them? What are the metaphor’s implications for the self‑observations and practices you will design?
In working with metaphors, I have found a rich way to assess situations and design practices to help my clients. I have also experienced some lessons learned that I want to share with you.
First, be aware that the metaphor helps you to create a hypothesis about the client’s situation. It is not an absolute. As a coach I cannot claim to know what is best for my client. My job is to offer possibilities to my client. Sometimes the client rejects the possibilities that I offer them, and there is data to be gained from that experience. More metaphors may surface for you. Follow your metaphors confidently but lightly.
Second, to share or not to share?. I don’t suggest that you always share your metaphors with your clients. I don’t always share mine. In deciding to share, base your criteria on what will be useful for the client. In the oak‑to‑willow work, I shared the images and they were useful. In the tarp‑to‑tapestry work, I did not share the images.
I have shared metaphors in a few different ways. Once, I wrote a poem about a client. The metaphors surfaced in the writing. Sharing the poem with the client seemed a natural thing to do, for it opened possibilities for them. Sometimes I ask the client to watch a movie that has the metaphor embodied in a character or situation the movie depicts. I often ask my clients to read books for the same reason. Sometimes we draw the images that show up for us. Sometimes we just talk about them.
Third, if you use and share metaphors that are within your client’s current world, you may run into trouble. Why? Because the client may make it more literal than is useful. Also, you run the risk of swirling in the loop that had them stuck in the first place.
Fourth, the metaphor does not have to work completely to be useful. For example, when I thought of a weeping willow, I thought of grace, flexibility, air, and movement. That was as far as I needed to go with that metaphor as it related to that client. There are other properties of the willow, however, that may not lend themselves to understanding this client’s movement.
Fifth, it helps to talk through your metaphor with another person. I have found that my understanding of my clients and my own approaches deepens with each metaphor conversation I have. I make time to do this and it has proven to be incredibly productive for me as a coach and also as a parent to two young kids.
If you haven’t deliberately used metaphors yet, I highly recommend beginning to practise creating and applying them as often as possible and notice what effect they have on your conversations. Most of all, have fun with it.