Exercise – Your habitual metaphors

(Takes about 20 minutes)

Think of a situation in your life that faces recurring difficulties. This might be your job, your romantic relationship, a family relationship, or something else. Try to pick something which has been on your mind a lot in the past weeks.

The exercise

(5 minutes) Use the following sentences as writing prompts. Elaborating a with a few extra sentences on each point :

  • I feel like, …
  • I think it’s a question of …
  • I think the solution is probably to …
  • I just need to …

(2 minutes) Look at what you’ve written. Underline all uses of metaphors, analogies and idiomatic expressions. For clues, look for expressions and words that are anything other than a direct, literal stating of the problem. For example, if a problem is that someone ignores your advice, you might say: “she’s defensive” (game/war metaphor), “She’s distant.” (travel/spacial metaphor), “She’s walls herself in.” (architectural/war metaphor), “She’s deaf to my advice” (biological metaphor). Do this for everything you’ve written under point 1.

(2 minutes) Note in the margin the over-arching themes or categories of your metaphors based on the list below :

  • War (e.g. ”fights”, “battles”, “peace”, “destroy”)
  • Games (e.g. ”teamwork”, “winning”, “stalemates”, “weight”,”risk”,”gamble”)
  • Nature (e.g. ”growth”, “nurturing”, “weed out”)
  • Business (e.g. “negotiation”, “compete”, “paying”, “sell out”)
  • Travel (e.g. ”journey”, “arrival”, “lost”, “far”)
  • Machines (e.g. “malfunction”, “repair”, “efficient”, “spark”, “force”)
  • Political/social (e.g. “power”, “influence”, “rules”)
  • Anything else that might seem a common theme in your individual case.

Note which theme is the most common and second most common. If you can’t find a dominant theme, don’t worry too much – just recognize the metaphors that you do use and which general theme/framework each one implies.

Change your metaphor. Either pick one from the list above or invent your own. The idea is that your new metaphorical framework is as radically as possible from the one you originally used. If you couldn’t find a common theme in your metaphors, just pick one at random.

(5 minutes) Try once again to answer the questions using the new metaphorical framework and the following guiding questions. Feel free to write freely and elaborate wherever you feel inspired to:

  • I feel like, …
  • I think it’s a question of …
  • I think the solution is probably to …
  • I just need to …

Postmortem

Every metaphorical framework carries a lot of assumptions and points at implied solutions. Some of these solutions will be useful and some not. You should always ask yourself: How good is this metaphorical framework I’m using at describing the problem? What assumptions are built in to the framework that might be wrong? Is there a better or alternative metaphor that might work?
Then try a different metaphorical framework and see what changes in your perception of the problem. Doing this may shake loose a few new ideas and approaches. Metaphors are useful approximations for overwhelmingly complex and new situations. If you remember that they are only approximations, and if you recognize their limitations they will serve you much bette

Beyond words

Next time you are listening to someone talk – for example a work presentation or a personal argument – listen carefully to the metaphor that the other person is using. Consider what assumptions are built into it. Getting someone to change their metaphorical framework can be difficult to do in practice, but not impossible, and in the meantime, you have additional insight into the person’s biases.

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