Two Ways Of Using Metaphors (NLP and Ericksonian)

One more thing that you will sometimes see included in the Milton Model, but really deserves a whole section to itself, is metaphor. If you had to get the real essence of what metaphor is about, it’s understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.

This mechanism is tremendously important to our experience. Some psychologists believe that metaphor is fundamental to the way we think and express ourselves.

We use metaphors all the time when we speak, mostly without noticing them: if someone says “our relationship has hit a rocky patch”, they are using a metaphor where the relationship is like a vehicle that they are both travelling in, and the difficulties are like a rough bit of road.

When we talk about someone blowing their top, that’s a metaphor that says anger is like some kind of hot liquid, maybe molten lava, so the person is like a volcano.

If you are looking forward to something, you are using a spatial metaphor for time, maybe as a road that you’re travelling along. Or maybe you experience time as more like standing by a road, and events are vehicles on the road moving towards you – as in ‘the summer holidays are nearly upon us’. 

One important element when you’re building rapport with someone is to listen to the metaphors people use. These can tell you a lot about how they are thinking, and matching those metaphors will help you to be understood and to feel like you’re on the same wavelength.

That’s one way of using metaphors. The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson had another way of using them. He would use stories to help his clients find resources within themselves, to bring about state changes, to help install new coping strategies, or to make a particular learning point for his students.

They could be real life stories from his life experience, from some hobby or interest of the client, stories of how other clients had solved problems, or drawn from myths or folk tales, or references to stories that the client was already familiar with from the Bible or even TV or Hollywood.

For example, Erickson was asked if he could do anything for Joe, a florist who was suffering from a particularly malignant form of cancer and had been given a month to live. Joe was, not surprisingly, unhappy and depressed at this news, and in addition was experiencing severe pain and found it hard to rest.

A relative begged Erickson to give him hypnosis for pain relief; Erickson agreed, somewhat reluctantly as he doubted he could do much for the man, especially as Joe was known to be skeptical of and even hostile to the idea of hypnosis.

However, Erickson reasoned that if he conveyed by his presence that he was genuinely interested in Joe, and genuinely wanted to help him, that should at least provide some comfort.

As Joe loved growing things, Erickson decided to talk about a tomato plant: about how it grows, how the rains bring it peace and comfort, and how it can feel comfortable growing.

He talked about how it took just one day at a time, how it could know the feeling of comfort each day, and how the tomato plant knew what it was doing, and how thinking of the luscious tomatoes beginning to form could give you the desire to eat.

In the course of the long story about how the tomato plant grows, Erickson interspersed many times, in many different ways, suggestions of comfort, ease, peace, all feeling well, taking it one day at a time, resting, and even increasing appetite – all sounding natural in the context of the story.

The hypnosis-skeptical Joe went into a trance listening to the story, and afterwards was most appreciative. During his remaining time he was more content, his physical condition improved (although the malignancy continued to progress), and the pain was much reduced, so he could come off his pain relief medication.

So what was Erickson doing as he told the tomato plant story? He noticed the patterns in the client’s situation (that he was a florist who loved growing things, and was in pain and distress), and chunked laterally to something else that had some parallels (a tomato plant growing) and contained some additional resources (a sense of comfort and ease, taking each day as it comes). This allowed Joe’s unconscious mind to reframe his experience as something less distressing.

(For much more about how Erickson used metaphor, try this book – My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H Erickson)

Metaphors are understanding and experiencing a thing, or a feeling, or a situation, in terms of something else that is analogous. The internal logic of the metaphor sets limits on what we expect to happen, and on the choices the person sees in that situation.

So if someone feels they have painted themselves into a corner, just stopping and walking out of there won’t seem like a valid option to them. Even if in real life that choice is available, they won’t feel able to do it, because they are experiencing the situation in terms of the metaphor as much as they are terms of their sensory experience.

One reason that metaphors are so powerful is that we can use them to talk about things that are hard to express in any other way – things in our lives that are mysterious, intangible, loaded with meaning – in a short, vivid, compact analogy drawn from our concrete experience.

As long as the relationships in the metaphor are analogous, we don’t have to describe the real situation in detail – we can work out the rest of the information from the metaphor. So metaphors can carry a huge amount of information about what an experience is like in a few words.

To sum up: you can use metaphors for understanding other people better and strengthening rapport with them, you can use them like Erickson did as a way of activating a person’s unconscious resources and giving them new choices, and you can also use them for describing a complex issue in a few words or an image that sticks in people’s minds, getting people to see something in a different way, or in a presentation leading your audience through a series of emotions from where they start out to where you want them to end up.

Would that be a useful item to have in your leadership toolbox?

Next time: how to create metaphors quickly and easily

© 2021, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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