The exploration and management of Metaphor is a powerful group process tool for facilitators and change agents. Whether you’re engaged in facilitating experiential learning, problem-solving, strategic planning, or change management, everyone is operating within a given set of metaphors or mental models that define their reality. From this perspective, one approach to tapping into higher individual and group potentials can occur by facilitating the change of one’s metaphors.
First, let’s take a quick look at the definition of “metaphor” just so we’re on the same page.
Metaphor: 1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare). 2. One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol, e.g., “The ship plows the sea, or “All the world’s a stage.”
The second definition best fits our purposes here where a metaphor can be considered a “figure of thought.” Most of us think in images. Helping people become conscious of the images (metaphors) that best represent their collective experience can be very revealing and empowering. This is true because our images define the boundaries of our experience, filtering and allowing in only a subset of all available information. Changing our images or metaphors, changes our filtering system and hence our experience.
So by facilitating the development of new images that generate new potential, we usher in “generative metaphors.”
Here is an example provided by Johan Hovelynck of the development of generative metaphors…
A few years ago I gave two friends of mine a hand finishing the electric wiring in their house. For this purpose long and narrow plastic pipes had been laid through the brick walls while constructing years earlier. Every single one of these pipes contained a string, that would allow us now to pull the wiring through. Unfortunately, one of these strings had been pulled by accident and left us with a 8m long curved pipe without a means to pull the electric wire. We first tried to just push it through, but the wire wasn’t rigid enough to make that work. So we reinforced it with wire and tried again. It lasted a while before we got frustrated with this strategy, realizing it wouldn’t work despite efforts to reinforce the wire with all sorts of things. Amidst the frustration came the idea – first as a joke – to flush rather than push the wire. Water! From ‘water’ our thinking shifted to ‘air’, and only a few minutes later we had tied a tiny piece of fabric to a sewing thread and sucked it all the way through the pipe with the vacuum cleaner. The wire followed. Sometimes it pays off to take jokes seriously… The original set-up being a string to pull, our initial image had been one of pulling and pushing: our minds were set on ‘mechanics’. As it became increasingly clear that our mechanical thinking didn’t allow us to solve our problem, we accommodated ‘hydraulic’ and ‘pneumatic’ metaphors. All of a sudden it became easy: the point was in our problem-setting rather than in problem-solving.
How Generative Metaphors Uncover New Potential
D. Schön, in his book, Generative Metaphor: A Perspective on Problem Setting in Social Policy, describes the process of metaphor development in different stages that are easily recognizable in the above story.
- Immersion in the Experience. A first important phase consists of people’s immersion in the experience. We were pushing and pulling wires with different methods. Despite our getting better at pulling and pushing, the feeling grew that this would not work.
- Triggering the Generative Metaphor. In the midst of this, the generative image was triggered: sucking. We stopped looking at our problem as if it were a mechanical one, and re-imagined it as a pneumatic problem.
- Unarticulated Sense of Similarity. It seems important to notice that, at first, we didn’t have a precise idea of where to go with this idea, but we somehow felt it could apply to our situation. Schön called this ‘an unarticulated sense of similarity’.
- Naming and Framing. An immediate consequence of this new perspective was a change of vocabulary: we ‘reframed and renamed’. We didn’t talk about strength, length and rigidity anymore, but about weight and volume.
- Explicit Account of Similarities: “Mapping.” Only then, Schön points out, follows ‘an explicit account of similarities’: we ‘mapped’ how the image of sucking would apply to a situation that until then we had looked at as one that needed pulling or pushing.
- New Solutions. The result was a new approach, and a solution.
- Jokes often carry new metaphors. In the story above, the image that eventually led to the solution was first presented as a joke. The “flushing” idea wasn’t meant seriously. It was an attempt to lighten things while feeling stuck. Jokes often carry new metaphors: after all the point of a joke is an interruption of the expected line of thought. If the new image is carried further into task strategies however, it tends to open up new options.
- Leave the problem. Another way to cope with growing frustration is to take a break. Here again it seems that this interruption is a chance to break with the line of thought the group is getting stuck in as well as with the frustration itself: generative metaphors seem to regularly come up right after breaks.
- Metaphors hold possibilities and restrictions. As group members enact their images, they may get stuck in the situation they created. Help them find an image that depicts their dilemma, then a new one that might serve them better.
- “Stuckness” as an entry to metaphor change. When people are stuck, they may be more receptive to seeing things differently or to intervention by the facilitator to help them explore new perspectives. Therefore, it’s important for facilitators to be sensitive to “stuckness” indicators which might include: disengagement, silences, repetition of events or conversations that don’t offer a solution, facial expressions, sighs, changes in voice sound, etc.
How might you use generative metaphors in your work with groups or in your own life situations this week? Please share your thoughts, stories, and experiences in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!