Workshop Materials

Metaphors That Govern How You Mediate

Why Your Mediation Style is a Metaphor, How To Remodel It and Make It a Conscious Choice

Workshop presented at Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR)
2003 Family Section Conference, Denver, Colorado
July 10, 2003

(An article written to accompany the ACR Denver workshop can be found here.)


How many people here have read or heard of the book "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson?  This very popular 1980 book (which is still in print) was the work of a very serious linguist and a diligent philosopher.  They showed how metaphor explains to us about Time, about our sense of Self, about Love, Careers, and about Causality and how things Change.  The metaphors they presented depend upon our simple, everyday experience of moving around in space, using our bodies in normal terrestrial circumstances.  We take concrete, physical experience that we naturally know a great deal about just by living in our bodies on this earth and use this concrete knowledge metaphorically to understand how humans think and interact and how the world works.

Some of the main findings of this work are that metaphor is what gives meaning to each of our personal realities and what structures our cultural understandings.  And metaphors operate almost entirely outside of conscious awareness.

Lakoff and Johnson's book launched what was then the fairly new academic field of cognitive linguistics into the public awareness.  Now cognitive linguistics is a well developed field with scores of reputable contributors. They are making metaphor into a topic of great public interest as well as academic advancement.  Now mediation -- the process of mediation, what we do as mediators, how we think about conflict and how to resolve it -- is very complex and multi-faceted.  We need something to understanding complex, abstract, multi-faceted enterprises.  Metaphors are perfect for the job.  It would be just too much for us to process all this complexity without heuristics, without parallels, without a way to encapsulate so much detail and logic into a form that we can use. 

We need to ground abstractions in physical experience,
Delimit the scope of what we are talking about,
Have a framework that summarizes basic assumptions,
Highlight the main dynamics and possibilities,
Fill in the missing pieces and connect the dots,
Hold things together.

Metaphor is what does all these things -- instantly, effortlessly, organically, and mostly without intruding into the conscious mind.

As Lakoff and Johnson explored the metaphors we live by, we can now explore the metaphors that we mediate by.  Once I learned something about basic metaphor structure I began to realize that we must be using metaphors all the time as we learn about, explain, plan and carry out our mediations.  I began to read basic texts on mediation with the intention of discovering what metaphors they depend on.  I had already read so much of this material in the past twelve years since I entered the field and had rarely noticed any overt use of metaphor.

Now, better equipped to recognize metaphors, I knew that if I uncovered the metaphoric subtext of our basic literature on mediation I could get a better grasp of what mediation is and how it works.  I could perhaps find more essential differences between the Evaluative, Facilitative and Transformative schools of mediation that are so much debated in our field.  If my understanding of metaphor were to become stable and conscious I could do more: 

I could encapsulate the main ideas more effectively; 

I would know how the scope and dynamics of mediation as I understand it might be unnecessarily constrained and limited, diminishing my ability to mediate; 

I could extend the existing metaphors to enrich mediation possibilities; 

I could use entirely different metaphors if needed and perhaps thereby increase the range of options for my clients.

So I put together a compendium of literature on mediation, both general texts and specific ones from the three schools mentioned above.  It comprised over 700 pages from books and articles and over 257,000 words.  I read this material looking for metaphors of all kinds.  I then used a computerized concordance of the material to search further and extract examples, some of which are included in this workshop.  Having done this I can say with certainty that mediation gurus and experts are indeed very reliant on metaphor to explain mediation.  Take this example (after Kovach):

The dancers come onto the floor and may stumble at first.  The dance instructor shows them the steps and encourages them to try to follow.  If all goes well, dancers watch each other to see how the other person moves and, bit by bit, their differences narrow and they become more synchronized.  As they enter different parts of the dance the instructor may stop them to show them a new sequence. Other than that the role of the instructor is mainly to keep the dance going.

Note how we are talking here about mediation -- but we are talking about it using the terminology and images of dancing.  By using dance, that we already know something concrete about, we can talk and think about mediation, something we may initially understand less. That is what metaphor is -- talking and thinking about something in terms of something else.

Here is another example (after Mayer):

All mediations involve at least some focus on the parties' interests. Interests are the needs that motivate people's actions and are sources of the conflict.  They can be viewed simply and superficially or at great depth. Going deep into needs can be more powerful in resolving conflict and it can also be so much more complex because of all the levels that must be penetrated.   Dealing with needs at a more superficial level is simpler and easier for everyone to see what's going on; and this may also not work well overall because the submerged grievances may pop up out of the depths later on.

Again note that we are talking about mediating as focusing -- something we do with our eyes.  So we are talking about mediation, which is what we want to know more about here, in terms of something we already know a lot about -- using our eyes to see. In this case we are trying to see things (needs) that may be deep inside something.  The metaphor is one of looking into a container for the source of something -- the deeper the more powerful, but harder to see clearly, and more mixed up with other stuff...

Were you aware of these meanings before I mentioned them?

You may agree with me that many such metaphoric meanings can be found in what we write and think about mediation.  Many people will say "so what?" or "why recite the obvious?" or "that's not a key point."  Yet these recurring metaphors are the substrate upon which the more literal and obvious messages exist.  Keep in mind that metaphor operates mostly at subconscious levels. That is, these influences on meaning operate outside of our awareness, yet can powerfully influence thinking nevertheless.

Most metaphors are not the obvious ones like the example of mediation as dance instruction, above.  The most influential metaphors are what cognitive linguists call "conventional metaphors" that are so common as to be part of the language -- embodying everyday concepts that turn out to be essential to understanding how things work.  Here is a review of why metaphor is essential:

- grounds abstract ideas in physical experience.
- fills in parts and dynamics that make ideas comprehensible and useful.
- carries unstated assumptions.
- defines scope of thought, controls point of view and range of options.
- makes many of the links between theory and practice.
- provides the dimensions along which new thinking may proceed, new alternatives created.

Now let us proceed to formalize our discussion of metaphor, and then go on to practice detecting and using it.

Slides From Workshop





Material for Exercises

The bibliography containing the "mediation expert literature" is found here.

(An article written to accompany the ACR Denver workshop can be found here.)



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