“An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.”
What are Metaphors in NLP?
To avoid confusion, let’s start with a common definition of metaphor that you probably encountered in your high school literature class:
“A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.”
Your teacher probably went on to demonstrate this with examples of famous metaphors – mostly pithily stated and highly memorable phrases. This is good as far as it goes, but NLP draws on a far older form of metaphor in which example and teaching are embedded in stories that shaped how people were to think about:
If you want to see how metaphor works in this way, think about the ancient texts that were used to teach children how to live and grow and respond to their world even more than as tools of literacy. You’re thinking of Homer, Vergil, the Bible, Confucius, the Koran, even Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and the oral traditions that permeate many pre-literate societies.
This is metaphor… a powerful tool for shaping hearts, minds, and behaviours.
How Metaphors Inspire and Support Change
Metaphors are stories that capture the imagination and harness the will.
In some cultures, stories are forbidden… unless they are part of the received tradition. This is an acknowledgement of the transformative power of story because this response is based on fear, and people fear power, not impotence.
Fiction is not frivolous. It is dangerous when it comes to inspiring change. It’s why news broadcasters and politicians zoom in on stories rather than statements to communicate their message. It’s also a very powerful agent of deep-seated behavioural change that authorities know they should censor and handle with great care because most stories have unintended consequences.
Taking Willpower out of the Transformation Equation
Most of us can remember stories that we were told as children. Some of us were also banned from reading or hearing certain books or stories because well-meaning adults (rightly) feared that we would be subconsciously influenced by them.
But what about the possibility that we could strategically use stories as metaphors that guided us down a chosen path, tools that would carry us forward when our courage or will-power flagged? That is how NLP teaches us to use metaphors for ourselves and for those whom we are coaching or working with.
Like any powerful tool, metaphors have potential to do harm as well as good which is why it’s important to think them through carefully and examine them from many angles before presenting them to a client.
Building or Choosing Metaphors
The principles of building or selecting a metaphor that will help you or your client achieve the desired outcome is fairly straightforward:
- Identify the sequence of behaviour or events that you would like to change;
- Consider the individual’s consistent behaviours and sequence them carefully;
- Identify the desired new outcomes and choices;
- Anchor the past and future behaviours in the client’s model of the world and establish clear connections between the client’s situation and the story;
- Establish new resources in the client’s mind that will help them engage with the story and create their own identification and momentum;
- Resolve the metaphor with some degree of ambiguity and use appropriate verbal cues to ensure continued openness.
- Test your metaphor to ensure that there are no hidden pitfalls that could create undesirable outcomes.
When you have mapped out steps 1-3, often you will find an existing metaphor that fits your purpose and only requires some slight additions and tweaks. Once you discover the power of metaphors, you will find more ways of crafting and using them in your own life, as well as for others.
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