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Metaphors: The Key to Unlocking Life

"People do not seek development because they have a problem. They realize that without intervention, the repetitive nature of certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors will continue into the future. They notice there is a pattern in their life which they do not like and do not know how to change."

-James Lawley and Penny Tompkins

Human beings have a love affair with certainty. Even when our patterns in life are unproductive, we often go to a great deal of trouble to protect them. Like a dog chasing its tail, we take the same actions over and over, even when they no longer serve us.

One way to unlock the present from the past is to discover your unconscious metaphors that are shaping your thoughts, perceptions and actions.

Once you understand the metaphors of your past, then you can invent new metaphors, creating a new reality, consciously.

If you begin to pay close attention to your speaking - the stories you tell, the feelings you express, the words and phrases you use -- you will hear the unconscious fundamental themes that play out in your life.

What are metaphors?

According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of Metaphors We Live By, "the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." A metaphor is a comparison made between two seemingly unrelated concepts.

In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act automatically without giving thought to our unconscious metaphors. For example, following are some common expressions about work:

This job feels like slave labor.

We work from dusk till dawn.

My boss is a taskmaster.

Keep your nose to the grindstone.

Metaphors set in motion a mood and environment from which we operate. And how we operate creates a rippling-effect on others.

Exercise for Uncovering Hidden Metaphors:

If you want to see what's running on your hard drive already, try this exercise. Ask a friend or colleague to listen to you for 10 minutes. Discuss an area of your life where you feel stuck or dissatisfied.

For example, talk about your relationship to work, time, or money.... Ask your listener to simply listen and write down phrases or words that you say. Begin talking. Paint a picture of how the situation is for you - how you feel, how it looks, your relationship to it.... Try to surface your images and pictures.

Next, look at the words and phrases that you expressed and ask yourself - what is a metaphor that represents what I've said?

Real Life Example:

Here’s a real example offered by Rick Tuley, a graduate of Harvard University and President of Destiny Development Corporation, successful property developers. Rick is a client enrolled in the Center’s 3-year international leadership development program, Future Thinking.

I love construction and building things. I love the creativity of it, and watching something emerge from nothing. But there are also a million little details and expectations that are sometimes tough to meet.

I have a client who is a real pain right now. Customer X has a mile-long list of things he feels I should fix, and I noticed I’ve started avoiding his calls.

It’s not that I don’t want to handle his needs. I will. But I noticed I either avoid him in order to not feel pressured, or I rush to say yes to get him off my back.

I went through an amazing coaching exercise with Jan Smith at one of her recent Future Thinking conferences. I was asked to describe my feelings about a difficult work relationship that is representative of nagging issues I have struggled with throughout my career. The goal was to uncover the unconscious metaphors that have been running my life.

Without being politically correct or worrying about whether the rest of the world would think I was crazy, I described requests by Customer X as a chain around my neck, completely taking away my freedom.

Or worse yet, like a tribe of natives chasing me through a jungle, gaining ground, just about to catch me and drag me down! I feel like I can’t escape even when he’s not around. In my reality, he’s a threat, and I go right into survival mode! It’s me or him!


OK, TAKE TIME OUT. Rick is an intelligent and educated man. If you had asked Rick if he thought Customer X was a tribe of natives chasing him, he would have laughed outright.

But I could tell from his reaction that he truly experienced Customer X as a threat that lives metaphorically, and unconsciously as a savage tribe about to take him down. I’ve seen countless times how this kind of thinking can truly affect your interactions in life and sabotage your goals and relationships.

Assigning meaning to our interactions with others is rarely conscious. We instantaneously perceive people and experiences the way we do based on our life histories. Through my seminars I truly enjoy demonstrating to clients how they can manage their lives consciously and contribute their gift to the world.

I worked with Rick to uncover the links to his past and broaden his perspective of Customer X (and all his future customer X’s that he would undoubtedly experience without changing his perspective).

Inventing New Metaphors:

What I'm about to tell you won't seem logical or sensible, but it works. Try following this while thinking about someone in your life (a relative, a client, a co-worker) about whom you have a frustration.

If you are willing to try on a more powerful perspective, look for a connection to what you love in life, and find a metaphor that brings out your best nature, your authentic self, toward another.

I'm not saying to go make lemonade out of lemons. I'm not saying to endorse the other's behaviors. I am suggesting inventing a more powerful metaphor and generating a more powerful rippling-effect from your fundamental relationship to the world.

Let’s go back to Rick’s story……..

To help me create new and empowering metaphors for my life, Jan took me through an incredible process where we examined what I love to do for no money, specific outcome or outside reward. Especially the senseless, impractical, fun stuff that I so often neglect in my busy “adult” life.

Well, I loved playing video games as a child, especially adventure games. I played them for hours with my best friend. I loved the visual effects, the surprises, the action, the personalities of the characters, the challenges that came up. We were a team on a quest for treasure. That was a fun common goal.

Jan helped me build a powerful new link between my video adventure game and working with Customer X. I can now see us working on his list like it’s an adventure – like we are part of a team… partners in a game … charging off into the unknown, committed to the same goals of finding treasure but open to different paths to get there.

It now feels like I’ve got his back, and he’s got mine. Like we’re partners in an adventure and we can figure it out!

The processes that I have learned as a client of the Center for Authentic Leadership are amazing to me and so are the results. I no longer feel the tightness in my shoulders and neck when I talk to my customers and I am able to relax. My resentments and anxiousness are truly melting away.

The Choice is Ours!

So, how about you? What stories are you telling? What webs are you weaving with your phrases and metaphors that keep you stuck and conclusive about "how it is" - losing any curiosity for more information, producing disconnection with others?

A highly successful consultant told me that he just realized his requests are like spider webs.... He asks questions to ensnare people into doing what he wants. He never saw that before. Now that he can see it, he can invent a far more powerful way to make requests that create effective action and honor the needs of both parties.

The rippling-effect of our communication generates waves out in life that can crash upon the shore leaving harm and destruction, or bring nurturing sustenance to all that we touch.

The choice is ours - to look for what's unseen beneath the surface and make powerful new associations, or to stay stuck in what we can't see, but can be felt. What will it be?

I hope you find this information helpful. It is just the tip of the iceberg for new ways of communicating that we teach in the Leadership Intensive. I have led this course for 20 years and seen leaders expand their greatness exponentially when they see how their invisible actions produce visible impact on others.

I invite you to invest three in-depth days that will alter the course of your future.

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Posted on Friday, July 1, 2005 at 11:43AM by Registered CommenterJan Smith | Comments Off

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