Using Metaphors with Coaching
By Angela Dunbar DipM MCIM
first came across the powerful effect of metaphors in coaching, when I was being
coached. At the time I was an NLP Practitioner, working towards Master level
with my own relationship issues. I thought it would be beneficial to get coached
by someone with an NLP background.
went into the first session with my normal, logical thinking patterns, and came
out with a completely different awareness of life, the universe and myself. I
felt like Alice, having fallen down the rabbit hole and finding herself in
Wonderland. I was in total awe of my own internal metaphoric representations,
and amazed at how deeply I was affected by them.
then, I have been on a journey; a treasure hunt; a quest for more knowledge and
understanding; a thirst for learning how other people use metaphors, and a love
that fills my heart and radiates out a belief in the magic inside us all. How
metaphoric is that? Metaphors are a wonderful, descriptive tool for
communication that can inspire others, but they are also much more.
metaphor can be viewed as simply one person’s description of something as
‘like’ something else. In George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's mind-expanding book, Metaphors We
Live By, they say: "The essence of metaphor is understanding and
experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." (page 5)
one acknowledges that most of our thought processes go beyond our conscious
understanding, metaphors give a unique perspective into how someone thinks,
feels and experiences their world. Consider this - the tangible world around us
is made up of billions and billions of constantly moving atoms and lots of empty
space in between. What we see is our own internal perception – colours,
shapes, patterns….isn’t it all just a metaphor for the real thing? Perhaps
metaphors are the closest we ever get to the ‘true’ experience of reality!
Jung explains the importance of the unconscious mind in his book, Man and his
Symbols, Chapter One. At some point of perception, we reach the edge of
certainty beyond which conscious knowledge cannot pass. The unconscious,
however, has taken note of all events and experiences, and will store this
information in forms and symbols that may be somewhat obscure. Jung was
convinced that by analysing those symbols that appear through connecting with
our unconscious, we have access to a much wider and more comprehensive
understanding of ourselves, our relationships and the wider world around us.
use of metaphors in everyday language is one such ‘key’ to deciphering our
Metaphors give the Coach Insight
a tool for coaching, the client’s metaphors give you an insight into their
unique perception of their situation and their goals. When the client tells you
that they can ‘see light at the end of the tunnel’, that is what they are
experiencing. There is light for them, and they are in a tunnel. They will
unconsciously ‘know’ much more about their situation from this metaphoric
viewpoint. They are very likely to know in which direction the light is, how far
away it is, and where the light comes from. They will know about the structure
of the tunnel, how it feels and looks, how narrow the passage, and whereabouts
they are in relation to the tunnel.
more – this is where the power of metaphor comes in. The Client will know, on
some level, what needs to happen for them to move towards the light and get out
of the tunnel. The answer can come in pure metaphor, the person’s ‘real’
perception of their tangible situation will shift as their perception of the
metaphor evolves and alters.
is estimated that the average person uses a metaphor in everyday language once
every twenty-five seconds. If you start to really listen to the language a
person is using, metaphors begin to jump out at you. See what I mean, a jumping
metaphor! I wonder how it jumps, and what kind of metaphor is one that can jump?
Right now, I can picture tiddlywinks; bright, shiny tiddlywinks of different
colours and sizes. And each tiddlywink, when you look closely, contains a
miniature world…..and there I go, with my own metaphoric description again!
Metaphors Using Questions
you ‘spot’ a metaphor used by a client, what can you do to help them pay
attention to it and understand it’s importance?
very powerful method of questioning has been developed by psychologist David
Grove, called ‘Clean Language’.
language you use is ‘clean’ because you say nothing to contaminate the
client’s own perception. You merely direct their attention towards the
metaphor, and the shapes and symbols that evolve from it.
Tompkins and James Lawley took David Grove’s process and developed it into a
model for coaching, and other therapeutic uses. They call it “Symbolic
Modelling”. It is a modelling process because, through the use of specific
questions, you are attempting to ‘replicate’ the client’s experience in
your own mind.
basic principles are congruent with any good coaching practice:
simple enough, and indeed it is, although the questions themselves may sound a
little unusual and unfamiliar to begin with.
questions need to be phrased in a very specific manner. There are just 12 basic
questions to use, and that may sound limiting, but believe me you can easily go
to other worlds with them!
Example Client Conversation
practice, the flow of questions can come very naturally. As an example, for the
client who sees light at the end of the tunnel, you might ask:
when you see light at the end of the tunnel, what would you like to have
might sound obvious to ask this, but we are all unique and some people may be
afraid of the light, be happy to stay in the tunnel, or want to turn around and
go the other way. Never assume you know what the client may want.
client could answer with “I want to get out of the tunnel and be in the
it’s a clear goal. Stay with it and find out more about the outcome. Let the
client get a real sense of how it would be to achieve their outcome.
when you get out of the tunnel, and you can be in the light, is there anything
else about that light?”
may tell you it’s warm, or bright… or whatever. They are developing their
sense of what it would be like.
when you can be in the light, what kind of ‘you’ is that ‘you’?
descriptions they give may highlight other metaphors or feelings, which you can
continue to explore.
feel relieved, like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders”
kind of lifted is that lifted?”
you feel relieved, whereabouts do you feel relieved?” (all feelings have a
location somewhere, within or for some, even just outside their bodies)
kind of weight is that weight?”
the outcome has been really explored, generally you will be able to
see/sense/notice that the client is ‘connected’ to a different reality. Many
clients will go into a light trance. It usually feels quite good to be
‘wallowing’ in one’s own outcomes.
could then take it a step forward.
when you are relieved, and in the light, what happens next?”
all is well, they may go to another level of goal setting. It may be that their
perception has already shifted by simply exploring the outcome. For some, this
could be where the problem (particularly if this is a ’habit’) re-surfaces.
Another tunnel comes along, or something similar…
you might ask “What needs to happen for you to get out of the tunnel, and
be in the light?”
“What else needs to happen?”
tend to stick within the logic of their metaphors. They could walk or run out of
the tunnel, but presumably something is stopping them, else they wouldn’t
still be in it. It would be ‘unclean’ to ask what stops them, as you are
assuming that there is a ‘what’ and a ‘stop’. Let them tell you:
can you get out of the tunnel?”
because my feet are stuck to the ground.”
now you can explore the problem…
kind of ‘stuck’ is that ‘stuck’?”
there anything else about feet that are stuck?”
kind of ground?”
there anything else about the tunnel when your feet are stuck?”
your feet are stuck to the ground, and you are in the tunnel, then what
an explorer, you seek to learn all you can about the terrain. The solution,
will, inevitably be within the problem somewhere. The Client is exploring the
terrain with you and will gradually perceive more and more as you continue
the elements of the metaphor could potentially be resources, something to
‘unlock’ or ‘shift’ or ‘move’ the problem environment. Maybe the
ground is wet and the feet can loosen. Maybe they are stuck with glue, and the
glue is so cold that is has become brittle. Maybe there is something else in the
tunnel that could change the situation. Often, the ‘scariest’ part of the
metaphor can turn into something benign and useful.
a client ‘shifts’ their awareness, you can see the release in the way they
suddenly relax, or laugh, or cry. After the session, the Client may understand
perfectly what all the shapes and symbols and elements ‘meant’ in the real
world, but many won’t have a clue on a conscious level. The great thing is, it
really doesn’t matter if they don’t. The shift has happened subconsciously,
the change has already happened. One remarkable, but sometimes frustrating thing
is that the Client simply ‘forgets’ they ever had a problem once it’s gone
– you might not get any recognition for helping!
12 Basic Clean Language Questions
find out what the client wants:
would you like to have happen?
detail: What kind of (Client’s words) is that (Client’s words)?
in space: Whereabouts is (Client’s words)?
awareness: Is there anything else about (Client’s words)?
metaphor: That’s (Client’s words) like what?
understand the bigger picture:
happens just before?
could (Client’s words) have come from?
explore relationships and connections:
is there a relationship between (Client’s words ‘x’) and (Client’s words
when (Client’s words) what happens to (Client’s words)?
find out how the goal can be reached:
needs to happen for (Client’s goal)?
can (Client’s words)?
By Angela Dunbar,
Skills Coach and Training Consultant, NLP Master Practitioner
article was first published in the Bulletin of the Association for Coaching,
October 2005 http://www.associationforcoaching.com/pub/newslet.htm
David J. & B I Panzer, Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and
Symbols in Psychotherapy, Irvington, New York, 1989.
George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors we Live By, University of Chicago
Carl, Man and his Symbols, Aldus Books Ltd, London, 1964
Tompkins, Penny & Lawley,
James, Metaphors in Mind, The Developing Company Press, 2000.
Copyright © 2005, all