Gary Skaleski, FEI EAP Counselor

As a clinician, an important part of one’s training to be a counselor is to learn not only the client’s way of speaking (so as to better understand their issues as well as develop rapport), but also the language of the specific type of counseling one will utilize to assist the client in overcoming his or her problems.

For instance, the language of psychoanalysis will differ from cognitive behavioral therapy, which will differ from rational emotive therapy, and so on. As is often the case, the client will then begin incorporating those terms to help understand and change their behaviors.

Andrew T. Austin, developer of Metaphors of Movement, has been doing a lot of recent work studying the metaphors of how people understand their own problems and life. A metaphor is a way of finding a similar and often parallel way of talking about something, like when a song or poem describes love as “a red, red rose.” Our history of stories, fairy tales and parables are further examples of the power and pervasiveness of metaphors in all cultures.

For many years, metaphors in therapy were used to tell stories to patients as a way of bypassing their conscious objections to change while providing new ways of understanding their problems and discovering possible solutions. Austin started exploring how people think of their lives as a type of metaphor, asking them to describe their problems with the question “What is that like?”

The answers brought forth literal ways in which a person was living in their problem structure. Examination of the metaphors often helped people find alternatives and ways of coping with their specific situations. Answers include phrases such as “I feel stuck (in what?),” “I feel like I am going around in circles,” or “It’s a jungle out there.” Instead of focusing on the feelings of the client, Austin explored in depth the metaphors themselves.

He then started noticing the ways corporations and businesses describe their goals, philosophies, and ways of doing business in speeches, emails, brochures, and websites: Messaging was usually in metaphorical terms. Where businesses get into trouble is when the metaphor is imposed on others who, in their minds, have different metaphors to describe the business.

For example, there are businesses that use the metaphor of a vehicle: “We’re driving to get more business,” “We’re racing ahead,” “We’re on the road to success.” Contrast this with a building metaphor such as “Building a new business,” “Building a solid foundation,” or “Adding new levels.” It is important to note that these are not just words, but indications of how individuals and businesses think about and structure their organizations.

If everyone in the organization is on board with the same metaphor, then there are usually no issues. But if management’s metaphors of meaning differ from the metaphors of the staff/employees, or if the metaphor itself is a mixed metaphor – something like “We continue to build the business on a solid foundation, but don’t understand why we are not moving forward” – then there will likely be factions within the organization working against each other, or in separate directions, and preventing the changes the business wants to actualize.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into ways of using this material to change or help promote the business agenda, but my focus was to bring this type of everyday metaphorical description to the forefront, to help readers become sensitive to it and attune to hearing or reading about it on a daily basis – and realize we are getting a glimpse into the hidden structure of our workplace environments and the goals of the organization.

Be assured that there are more metaphorical spaces and/or descriptions than the few mentioned here. What others are there? Which one(s) are you involved with at your business? I leave it up to you to come up with interesting and creative ways to work with this information.

By the way, what metaphor do YOU work in?