Metaphor, huh yeah, what is it good for?

Metaphor, huh yeah What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing, oh hoh oh

Metaphor huh yeah What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again y’all

Metaphor, huh good God What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, listen to me…

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

Metaphor: a thinking trap that blinds us to complexity in the real world.

Take the example of war, it is loaded with metaphors. For some war is framed as a fairy tale with a cast of characters, good guys (the heroes) and bad guys (the villains). Other metaphors for war include war-as-a-game (a game to be won with a winner and a loser) or war–as-medicine (giving the enemy a dose of what’s good for them!)

Is it really that simple?

What these metaphors do is to simplify the complexity of war. They make it easier to package by the media and easier to accept by the public. They sanitise it by limiting your thinking. They also ignore the layers of complexity of real life. They remove the internal layers of war, the different people and perspectives involved across the complex stakeholder landscape. These metaphors reduce reality and frame it as a simple story.

Is there really a good and bad side to a war? The atrocities committed in Iraq suggest not. Is there really a winner and a loser? The ongoing struggles suggest not.

Metaphors hide complexity. Metaphors create a cosy reality that allows us to accept the unacceptable without question.

Try this little experiment…

Find a situation where you and someone else have different perspectives, a work project or political allegiances could be good examples. First consider from your perspective a suitable metaphor for the project and what you are trying to achieve. Next ask them to identify a metaphor that they believe represents the project and what they are trying to achieve on it. Then compare and contrast the differences and similarities between how you both perceive the same project.

This should reveal some interesting differences. I did this once on a project with two other people. One saw the project as a stage production (being watched my senior management) the other saw it as a journey of discovery (a trek into the unknown). This revealed a powerful insight into what they considered important and also what they didn’t see.

These metaphors underpinned how they behaved, what they saw as important and what they chose to dismiss as unimportant. A truly useful insight into perspectives. Even though they didn’t realise they were there. This exercise also enable the project team to reconcile these different perspective and find a common metaphor to agree on.

So on your next group venture challenge yourself about any hidden metaphors you have. Ask questions of others to gain insight into their metaphors. Bring them to light and work with them. Consider how metaphors can constrain thinking, especially when the stakes are high.

Oh, metaphor, I despise    ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives 


  1. Pingback: For the love of a good metaphor – Too Posh To Mosh
    • posiwid4me · May 6, 2016

      Metaphors can be a power for good, as long as you are aware of their existence and their blind spots. Thanks for the feedback.


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