The power of metaphor in executive coaching

Awareness of metaphors in coaching conversations and understanding how to explore these with clients provides a powerful way of working for any executive coach.

Metaphors are ways in which we compare one thing to another. They describe how something is like or different to something else. I feel as if am trapped underground, or I am walking on sunshine – both are highly charged metaphors. They are full of symbolic language.

Metaphors are often imaginative, dramatic or surprisingly apt. Each image will also contain and hold some associated emotions.

Metaphors capture and help to structure our experience. They are a means in which we conceptualise, associate, categorise and make sense of our world. They help us to get a handle on what is going on and make sense of things.

Metaphors often move us beyond our words

Metaphors often bypass the more analytic thinking mind and directly bring out that which is less consciously understood. Imagery mines a ‘different kind of knowing.’ Metaphors reach beneath the surface of our experience – often holding a deeper truth or message that may be hidden or somewhat submerged. Metaphors bring new understanding up to the surface of our lives.

Virginia Satir says of ‘metaphor’:

‘Metaphor is another kind of way to talk about human feelings.  The English words about feelings are very limited.  Again, a metaphor makes it possible to get a new sound and a new sight, a new touch, a new feel, and a new thought about something.  That is what creates change.’

From The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond,  Virginia Satir et al

Metaphors can simplify the situation

Images or pictures often communicate and shape complex information into one idea. They bring everything together into a much simpler format than mere words do. They bring a diverse set of information, feelings or data together and produce a cohesive, meta image or perspective.

The imagery and metaphors that any client uses are therefore, a rich source of data and provide information about their perception of the current reality or context. They often include a description of the emotional landscape that they are experiencing as they talk.

Often a client will come from work to coaching and be in an analytical mode. Thinking constructively and problem-solving abilities are expected and rewarded in most business settings. The client (and the coach!) can become stuck in their heads through talking about the issue in front of them. They can keep moving round and round the same problem.

Locked in this wordy thinking pattern can be unhelpful, like a goldfish swimming round and round in the same bowl, the client has trouble discovering any new waterways. Metaphors can lift clients out of the familiar and open up new uncharted waters.

Picking up on their metaphors or asking clients what image or metaphor might sum up the situation, can often create a catalytic shift for them. They suddenly find a different way of looking at the same situation. They gain greater clarity about what they think and feel. A fresh energy arises in the coaching session. This new way of looking at things often creates a novel turn in the coaching conversation and then different outcomes emerge.

Sometimes, though, the metaphor keeps them stuck

For a coach, metaphors provide an opportunity for exploration and discovery – for insight, fresh learning and new direction and sometimes also in keeping clients confused, stuck or anxious.

On the one hand, they can be powerful in that they can tap into client’s motivation and energy, moving them significantly forwards or helping them to move quicky or more cautiously and attentively.

On the other hand, metaphors can also have a negative effect. The very image can produce disillusioning or potentially unhelpful emotions for the client. The picture itself can generate anxiety or fear and create a downhill snowball of worry or negative fantasising about the future.

Building up your awareness as a coach

The process of skilfully working with metaphors in coaching starts with a heightened awareness of your use of metaphors as an executive coach. You may be using a variety of metaphors to describe your practice or how you coach.

You may perhaps, be using these metaphors without thinking much about them in your coaching sessions. Actively tracking when they show up can be beneficial. Your metaphors reveal your unconscious pathways and patterns, so it can be useful to understand the metaphorical habits in your language or the images that you slip into the coaching conversation without even realising it.

These metaphors will have an influence in the meeting. Conscious awareness can lead to being more ‘choice full’ and careful in how you use metaphor to support, rather than hinder your effectiveness as a coach.

Secondly, listening out for your clients’ metaphors in your coaching conversations means that you can more effectively track their frequency, energy and the emotional qualities that lie within them. It will increase your chances of spotting a possible learning or potent insight that one powerful metaphor may be holding for your client.

Elicit your client’s metaphor rather than plugging them into your own image

It is best to use the client’s metaphor rather than your own, unless you, as the coach are using it to check for clarification. Your metaphor could be helpful occasionally in nudging your client towards finding a very different or similar but slightly different meaningful, personal metaphor.

As the coach, you might say something along these lines to your client.

“As you talk,  I see it like this…(describe your image). This may or may not be how you perceive the situation. What might your metaphor be?”

Working with metaphor can be fun!

Metaphors can also create a sense of creativity and playfulness in coaching sessions. They can help clients take life less seriously, by finding some humour in a difficult situation.

The metaphor becomes memorable, and the learning seems to have a lasting effect. Fun, gentle amusement and some laughter usually lightens the load and replaces negative feelings with more positive emotions. The image frequently remains accessible as the client reflects upon the coaching session afterwards. It lingers on in their mind’s eye. Working with clients’ metaphors in this way can create greater resilience and a powerful, new intention to act or think differently.

If you are a coach who would like to enhance your coaching skill and agility in using metaphors with your clients, please contact Jude Elliman or Nick Isbister to fix up a supervision session.