Metaphors: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Author : Kim Witten

24th June 2021

17th – 23rd May was International Coaching Week, and during this weeklong celebration of all things coaching, we decided to create our own theme for the week: The good, the bad and the (subjectively) ugly in the coaching industry. As part of this we held dedicated discussion spaces for our community to explore the good, bad and ugly that we each see within the coaching profession, as well as inviting them to contribute articles on this theme for a community competition to win a free spot on an Animas CPD.

We received 9 brilliant articles and will be sharing each of them on the blog for you to enjoy. Here’s Animas coach, sociolinguist and researcher Kim Witten’s article.

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By

We humans are sense-makers. We use metaphors to help us interpret and share our understanding of the world. Metaphors are such an integral part of our daily communication that we may hardly even recognise they’re there. Whether we realise this consciously or not, metaphors are providing us with a window into a speaker’s thought process and perspective.

To illustrate this, if I say that ‘they attacked every weak point in my argument’, you understand that I’m describing an argument using the metaphorical concept of war. This may evoke further associations, such as weapons, battles, injuries, winning and losing. These concepts allow us to convey meaning non-literally, giving greater depth to our experiences through small moments of storytelling.

However, the concepts we choose to relate our experiences may also hide or bias some aspects of them. If a client is focussing on describing an argument as a war, using battle tactics and weapons, they may be overlooking or de-emphasizing the cooperative aspects of argumentation, such as the time and emotional investment that is being given by both parties in working through a challenge. If collaboration is important to the client, we might ask them to think about ways they might incorporate this value into the scenario. That is, we can challenge our client’s thinking and their perceptions of the world by inviting them to reposition themselves and their values within their chosen metaphorical frames.

The use of metaphors is also a form of connection, creativity and play. As we all have many universally shared experiences about what it means to be human in the world, we can draw upon our memories of these experiences and the feelings they evoke to convey meaning easily to others. For instance, if a client tells us that negotiating a pay rise with their boss was like a great showdown, we understand that this situation is being perceived primarily in terms of conflict. We don’t need to have personally experienced a showdown to understand this, we just need to be somewhat familiar with the concept of a showdown and the context in which it occurs.

What we already know about our client adds further depth to what they mean when they refer to the salary negotiation in terms of ‘a showdown’. A video game-loving client may be using this showdown metaphor to convey that the negotiation was quick and highly-charged, whereas our spaghetti western fan may be expressing the drawn-out tension of the situation, in which there may be no true winning side. It is our connection with the client and our understanding of the context in which they speak that allows us to interpret what they say as a form of shorthand to pack more meaning into fewer words.

People can also get creative and playful with metaphors by evoking them in strange and unexpected ways. The client could have just as easily described the negotiation with their boss as a rap battle, or maybe a high school dance, which are both unexpected, but we still can make meaning out of it. We also may pick up extra information about them — that they are perhaps unconventional, funny, or witty. That is to say, metaphors not only tell us something more expressive about what is being said, but they can also tell us something valuable about the person who is saying it.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Metaphors don’t always need to be explicit. Often, metaphor frames are activated without direct mentions of war, showdowns, dances or other concepts. This activation happens by association, through other elements in the metaphor’s domain. For example, if I say that my client and I were in step with each other, or hitting all the beats, or moving gracefully together, you understand that I’m using the conceptual frame of dancing as a lively way to describe good rapport.

This is especially helpful to us when examining more abstract concepts, such as the quality of something being good. Metaphors for ‘goodness’ can take many forms, but some common ones are as follows:

Notice that in the examples above, the opposites of these metaphorical frames are generally true too — lack of ‘goodness’, that is, ‘badness’, is often expressed in language through metaphors of things being down, horizontal, dull, or unpleasant in taste or smell.

To complicate things further — as well as display the wonderful complexity and nuance of language — sometimes bad things can actually be used for good intentions, such as a sinful cake, seeing someone as devilishly handsome, or perhaps simply being a badass.

Sometimes, even though we have the best intentions with our clients, we may become aware of unpleasant reactions to the phrases used or concepts evoked by their use of metaphors. We may feel aversion or even disgust by the things we hear. When these reactions enter into the coaching space, they can bias us in ways we may not even realise.

These reactions are often prompted by metaphors of ugliness. This can show up in many forms, from the sick, misshapen, crass, or gross to things that may be considered taboo, depraved, or otherwise undesirable. Anything that evokes emotions of disgust is likely an ‘ugly metaphor’.

Although the examples below are relatively benign, notice your reactions to the following phrases and words as you read them:

Some of us find that we experience revulsion to particular words themselves, even when stripped of context. We may deem them as vulgar, gross, or inappropriate.

Others may find that although they generally find the terms themselves to be inoffensive, when placed in a familiar context, they may evoke unpleasant memories of personal experiences.

Similar to metaphors for good vs. bad, the opposite of the ugly metaphors also exist — these are metaphors that promote feelings of pleasure, awe, or arousal. While the latter often reminds us of things of a sexual nature, this could be as simple as becoming aware that we are hungry, and notice the subsequent cravings luring our mind away.

Regardless of the cause or our sensitivities, our reactions to language and metaphor in the coaching space can distract from our ability to be present. For many of us, the tendency may be to shy away from noticing these reactions, to want to keep our emotions ‘under wraps’ or ‘tamped down’. Perhaps we want to hide behind a mask, lest our shame — often itself deemed an ‘ugly’ emotion — be revealed.

However, I would encourage all of us to challenge ourselves to notice our reactions to the metaphors used in the space. We will then be able to more readily see how those responses may help or hinder us in connecting with our clients. We might invite curiosity in to sit with us and quietly share the experience. Let us question what’s underneath the metaphorical masks we wear. And accept the imperfection we may find there. This will create safer spaces for our clients and for ourselves, so that we one day may not need to wear them, we show up in the room with our full bandwidth, unmuted voices, and the wholeheartedness of our words.

Kim Witten

Kim Witten

Transformational coach, sociolinguist and researcher

Visit Kim's Website

Categories: International Coaching Week  

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