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What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is a way of describing something by referring to it as something else.

All the world’s a stage’, is a metaphor.

And all the men and women, merely players’, is another one,

There’s a lot of metaphor in Shakespeare’s language.

And we use metaphor a lot in our everyday language, far more than we might imagine.

As coaches we use metaphors all the time. We talk about having a bag of tools or a box of tools at our disposal that we can use with our clients. We don’t literally have a bag of tools.

On our coaching diplomas, we have students from all around the world, and obviously in other languages there will be metaphors that don’t then get translated into English. Likewise, our English metaphors, may not be understood as readily by those who are speaking it as a second language.

Someone who is Spanish who was on one course used the metaphor of not entering the garden, in terms of not having a conversation that might provoke a response. It is a Spanish phrase which we just don’t have.


Using Metaphors In the Coaching Room

When we talk about metaphor in coaching, what we’re really looking for is a way of understanding the coachee’s world. If they use a metaphor, there’s a good chance they’re choosing it for a reason. It might be unconscious, they might not be aware of why they’re choosing it, but there’s a good chance there is a reason for them choosing it and that it means something to them.

Here’s an example of one used by a client of Tom’s, where they were talking about their situation during COVID. She said,

“I’m just lost in the forest. It’s like my camper van’s broken down in the forest. I’m trying to fix it. I’ve got all these tools. I’m trying to fix it to get out of the forest”.

That’s a really rich metaphor that you can then work with.

If we overlook those metaphors, we miss the opportunity to really draw out of our coachee what’s going on in their world.

Whereas if we pick up on them and start to expand on them, then we can start to build a picture. That’s the really powerful thing about metaphor, it creates a visual image that will stay with us, we will still remember that, often years later.

Another example was of a client describing their work situation:

“I just feel like I’m on a train and I just need to drop the carriages off where they need to be at different departments. And then, I just want to pull into the station, just off the engine, and just step off the engine and go my own way.”

Tom then asked her the question, “so as you step off the engine onto the platform, what happens next?” And she said, “Wow. Okay, so then I need a bridge. I need a bridge to the next place I’m going to.”

So, we can use metaphor to explain our situation, to help explore how we’re feeling about something that perhaps is hard to describe in other ways. But then also we can use metaphor to look forward and bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be. In the case of this client, it was literally a bridge.


Don’t Introduce Your Own Metaphors

When we are coaching, it’s not particularly useful for us as coaches to introduce metaphors. For example, to say ‘this sounds like you’re on a yacht and you need to change tac as the wind is blowing in different direction’ If we start to introduce our own metaphors, that’s not the coaches’s world. That’s the way we interpret what they’re saying.

We need to make sure we don’t put our own words into their story. We’re entering their world and hoping that we can help them clarify what’s going on for them by exploring their world and building that mental image for them. Metaphor is a great way to do that, but it has to be theirs. 

For example, What comes to mind for you when someone says, ‘I need some space’?

Helen gets the white space from the matrix: Clean, white, things appear that you need.

Tom gets an empty playground.

If Helen was to ask Tom to think about the white space in the matrix, it would mean nothing to him, because he hasn’t seen the film, and it’s not his metaphor.

If Tom was to ask Helen to picture an empty playground, she would immediately think of Terminator and the negative associations of the empty playground scene (she is heavily influenced by visual effect of films, clearly). 


this is not ikigai
Introducing ‘Clean Language’

Clean Language is a particular approach to coaching, which just uses the coachee’s language. If the coachee’s language is metaphor, then you use the metaphor. In this approach they have a particular way of drawing out the metaphor.

Imagine that you ask

“What would you like to take away from this session today?”

And they answer

“Well, I just want some clarity.”

Then you might ask,

“And what clarity is that clarity?”

That sounds like a really clunky question. The first few times you say that out loud, it sounds really odd. But you get used to it. As the coachee hearing that question, they’re in that moment, in that zone. They don’t think it is weird. They just go with it. And it really invites exploration of their own language.

In response to that clarity question, if someone said,

“Well, it’s like a box. It’s like a wooden box.”

Then you can start to ask more,

“How big is the wooden box?”

“What colour is it?”

And you can start to explore it in more detail.


Here’s another real-life example:

“I’ve just got this weight on my shoulder.”

 “Okay, what weight is that weight?”

“it’s like a grey block. It’s like a grey concrete block.”

“it sounds really heavy”

“Yeah, it is really heavy”

“Okay, so you’ve got this grey concrete block on your shoulder. Where would you like the concrete block to be?

“Well, I need to put it in front of me so I can see it. Because it is there as a weight, but actually, I think it could be quite useful. And what I want to do is to be able to use some of it. So, I think if I have it in front of me, I can then break it down into smaller blocks, and I can take out the bits that I need And the bits that get left behind, they’ll still be there for another time, but I don’t need to use all of it now.”

What a lovely coaching conversation.

That’s where metaphor can be really useful, to broaden out someone’s thinking. If the metaphors come from them and they’re flowing, they are choosing that language to express themselves for a reason. If we ignore it, then we’re missing a trick. 

Changing The Metaphorical Landscape

In the previous example, the coachee started to shift and change her metaphorical landscape by moving the block to where she could see it. Here’s another example of making a shift with metaphor. In response to the statement:

“I’ve just got all these hurdles in my way. I’ve left it too late. There’s too many hurdles.”

Rather than going with the hurdles and asking what hurdles they are, Tom just said,

“What if they weren’t hurdles? What if they were stepping stones? What’s the next step?”

And his client was off. Suddenly the hurdles disappeared and they were stepping stones, and she could identify what each step was ahead of her, what she needed to do, to get where she wanted to be.

We have to be careful that we’re not dismissive of their metaphor. If the metaphor doesn’t seem particularly helpful, what if we change the landscape a little bit? Or, we could ask

“what if you change the landscape?”

“What could change that could help you move forward?”

Or a cleaner way to do it would be, if we were using a clean language approach, would be to explore the hurdles:

“What hurdles are those hurdles?”

“When you get to the hurdle, what happens next?”

“What happens just before the hurdle appears?”

There are many different ways we could go with it.


Top Tips On Using Metaphors

  • Listen for metaphors
  • Use effective playing back of those metaphors and
  • Ask questions to explore and expand the metaphorical landscape
  • Use the coachee’s language
  • Don’t introduce your own metaphor
  • Allow the client’s own metaphors to surface rather than asking ‘Is there a metaphor?’
  • Once the client better understands their landscape, metaphor can be used to explore the way forward
  • Allow the conversation to emerge


A Metaphor for Coaching

There’s a lovely metaphor for coaching and that emergent approach to coaching of ‘building the bridge as you’re walking on it’. Because in coaching, we don’t know where it’s going to go. We don’t know what’s going to come out of our coachees’ mouths. So, we are trying to move forward, but we don’t really know what the future looks like, we just build that bridge as we walk on it.

Quite often coaches talk about coaching as a lighthouse. Maybe because of the rays of light that come out from a lighthouse, almost like a beacon. But actually, we see a lighthouse as warning people to stay away, there are rocks here! To us, this is a strange metaphor to choose for coaching.

We think a good metaphor for coaching is that it’s like having a torch. There’s a darkness all around for the coachee, and the coach has a torch that they can shine in whatever direction the coachee wants them to shine it. It helps them to explore that little area of their world. Which is nice because then you’re walking that path together. Another lovely metaphor for coaching, ‘Walking the Path Together’. The name of our business, ‘Your Coaching Journey’, there’s a metaphor, and we talk a lot about the path we’re walking and the journey we’re taking.

Listening out for metaphors when our clients are talking and finding out more about them, exploring them more deeply, can be really useful to their understanding of themselves, their motivations, values, and desires. It can help them understand their journey, and guide them to their path.

Using metaphors in coaching is one of many approaches that we cover on our diploma programme. To find out more about our Doctors’ Transformational Coaching Diploma click through here