Metaphors can be described in different ways. For me, the simplest way to explain these is that a metaphor is a figure of speech that rhetorically describes one thing by referring to another. In doing so, it pulls out the hidden similarities in both situations. Examples of some widely used metaphors are: The world is a Stage or She has a heart of gold. I am sure we might have used these in our general conversations.
Its use in coaching is interesting. Coaching is both a convergent and divergent process. We use both throughout the entire coaching conversation. We diverge to share experiences and feelings, get ideas, evoke possibilities, and open the mind and we then converge to select a few of these for action.
As we can well imagine-it’s the opening the mind and heart to sharing that often becomes difficult for most people. And yet, we cannot gain from the coaching conversation if we are not sharing what’s happening with us, our current situation, and how we see it. Coaching conversations have meaning only when the coachee is fully able to share these with the coach. In doing so, the situation becomes clearer to them too. Mere words sometimes cannot come close to feelings and experiences. This is why, most people struggle if you ask them “So, how are you feeling about…?”
The answers that emerge are more cognitive rather than expressive. This is where the use of metaphors comes in. Metaphors bridge the gap of pulling out the concern, challenge and feeling through the use of a third-party situation. This enables the person to share their feelings without personalizing the situation. Metaphors help us to bring a third-party perspective to the situation and get us to zoom out of our personal situation by creating a mental visual picture.
As a coach, I have a special affinity for metaphors and encourage the use of these in my coaching conversations with my clients.
I use it sometimes to get to the “as is” situation of my coaches. For example, I often ask “So if you had to use a metaphor to describe your current situation, what comes to you”. The answers are amazing. One woman leader described her current situation as “a doormat that people wipe their feet on when they enter the office”.
Another senior leader said that “Life is a treadmill-you cannot get off once you start”. Other responses have been “A cat among pigeons” etc. Another person used the metaphor of a STOP Traffic sign to explain how their life is going on. An amazing imagery comes out when metaphors are used in coaching. The coachee is able to bring out their situation using visual imagery through the use of metaphors. This helps to create a picture that is absolutely clear. The coach can then explore the situation further to understand the impact of the same and how to handle the same for the future.
The Coach can also encourage the use of metaphors to ask the Coachee to also look at the end desired stage. For example – when I asked the Woman Leader who had talked about being like a door-mat as to what metaphor could best describe her future – she answered” Like Wonder Woman”- an image that spoke of power and courage!
Coaches can also use metaphors to give feedback to their coachee to raise their awareness of their thinking and choice options. For example, a coach might say “A metaphor I might use to describe the way I see you is like a vacillating clock!”.