Metaphors That Reveal and Expand Client Thinking

Workshop presented at
Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR)
2002 Family Section Conference

Savannah, Georgia
March 1, 2002

by Thomas H. Smith, Ph.D.
Mediator in Private Practice
Boulder, Colorado


This material is intended to provide background to the workshop presentation and also to relieve you from having to make notes on some of the more technical points.  For more depth on this subject, go to the website shown above.

Most mediators seem to know that metaphor can be very influential and work quickly and naturally to change thinking.  They realize that it is unobtrusive and operates holistically, without analysis, explanation or persuasion.  But few know very much about what a metaphor actually is or that, for twenty years or more, it has been a very vigorously studied topic in cognitive science and contributory disciplines.

Metaphor has not always been considered to be a fundamental cognitive function.  Many  have believed metaphor to be secondary to literal meaning (Searle, 1979).  Others distrust metaphor, such as Churchill (1990) who states, "Metaphor is the figurative use of analogy" and he believes it should be avoided when attempting to be clear or evaluate the truth of an argument.

But a growing literature in cognitive science demonstrates that metaphor underlies much of our complex thinking, reasoning and language.  This is especially true in abstract domains of the sort that figure prominently in the mediation process, such as emotions (often understood metaphorically as forces moving within), personality (a structure defining what moves what), and interpersonal relations (a set of connections through which influence is exerted).  Certainly metaphor guides our clients’ psychological interpretations of motivation and behavior, and their predictions about future outcomes.

We understand these indirectly experienced and abstract subjects by likening them to something else that we already do understand. Our grasp of such subjects remains at least partly, and often predominantly, in the metaphorical realm. So, when discussing such questions (which often arise in mediation) as "Why does this person feel this way?" "What does he need?" How can we cooperate?" or "Will this work best for the children?" we are implicitly using metaphor.

This is why it is so important that mediators have a conscious awareness of different kinds of metaphor and, hopefully, the skill to make good use of them.  Much of the dispute we see as mediators is due to differing metaphoric interpretations, and resolution of such disputes may depend upon clarifying for clients the metaphors they are implicitly using.

Recent evidence shows metaphor is often preferred in everyday thought and speech to literal interpretations (Glucksberg, et. al, 1982). Just during the past twenty years a large body of work in linguistics, psychology and education has accumulated (e.g., Ortony, 1993) to show how metaphor generates understanding of the kind illustrated in the examples above.  Furthermore, many cognitive scientists now insist that metaphor plays a key role in structuring all human cognition.

A very comprehensive account of metaphor in the cognitive science literature is given by Lakoff and Johnson (1999). Their extended description shows how metaphor transfers understanding from a source to a target domain.  Lakoff and Johnson join others (e.g., Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) who view cognition as a unified, embodied process ranging from attention and perception, through mental processing, to behavior.

To use metaphor skillfully and flexibly requires us to bring this thinking process more into conscious awareness.  How are we to do this?  We all know that psychological research isn't always easily applied in practice but, as we shall see, much of the recent work in cognitive science can be adapted to help us develop our skill in using metaphor.  And these skills promote three important tenants of mediation:

(1)   Listening to what clients say -- about their problems, needs, desired outcomes, what has happened, what they believe will happen.

(2)   Improving communications by asking questions to get better understanding of what clients mean.

(3)   Enlarging the available alternatives that clients may choose among.

Target Domain and Source Domain – A Major Aspect of Metaphor

Let us focus now on one of the major distinctions made by those who research metaphor – the Target and Source Domains.  Metaphor organizes the unknown (what is called the Target Domain) in terms of the known (the Source Domain).  One concept, situation or domain is used metaphorically to describe or understand the contents, scope, interactions and logic of something else.  So, if someone said, "He sniffed out what was causing the problem," or, “I poked around to find out what was going on,” the words "sniffing" and "poking" bring to our attention actual experience using the sense of smell to detect things, or using your hand or a stick to poke into places you might not readily see.

Metaphor organizes what, relatively speaking, is unknown (the Target Domain) in terms of what is better-known (the Source Domain).  In a mediation situation the Target Domain would be the problem or dispute (which is, relatively speaking, the less well understood); the Source Domain is what is used to aid in understanding.

Most accounts of metaphor in philosophy, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science introduce the distinction between these two domains.   This establishes them as logically separate and helps the student, researcher or theorist deal with them independently.  But I have found that, because this thinking is a partially unconscious process, people don’t readily learn this distinction as it applies to everyday examples.  When they are presented with everyday conversation and tasks that are routine in their work they frequently fail to differentiate between what is the Target and what is the Source.  As a result they often fail to recognize that metaphor is present.

People may be so accustomed to processing a metaphor holistically that they treat the Source as part of the Target, the essence or logic of the Target, but not something initially experienced separately.  When these same people are in their role as mediators I want them to be able to listen for this distinction in what a client is saying.  The mediator’s role is to listen well but also to improve communications.  Skill with metaphor enables the mediator to ask questions that help to differentiate between the conflict faced by the client and the logic that may seem part of the conflict but which is, in fact, metaphorically transferred from entirely separate experience.

Forms of Metaphor and Using Metaphor for Guidance

So often we “name” metaphors in order to make them more accessible and conscious, and just the name automatically calls to mind at least some of what is entailed in the metaphor.  For example, if I mention “travel” as a metaphor, you are likely to think immediately of a change in scenery, going somewhere in a car or plane, packing, choosing a destination, etc.  Likewise, recalling an entailment (e.g., “pack your bags”) can elicit the entire metaphor.

One useful way to expand your capacity with metaphor is to organize and become more familiar with useful categories of Source Domains.  Here is a breakdown with some examples (see more at

Common Objects and Activities, such as an Engine (e.g., once started it ran by itself), Making a Fire (cooperation was kindled), Commercial Transaction (too high a price to pay).

Cultural, such as American football (e.g., hit with maximum impact), British House (built to last), Japanese Garden (plan evolves, adapts over time) (see Gannon, 2001).

Bodily Movement, such as moving one’s own body from one place to another, constrained by what your body can do and what obstacles may be in the way; examples:   Emotion is Motion (e.g., he was moved by what was said), Emotional Stability is Maintaining Location (stay calm), Understanding is Taking Hold of (pick up the idea) (see Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Causal, conceptualized metaphorically as force involving movement, such as Making (she made him quit that job), Pushing (he pushed her to agree), Giving Rise To (that attitude spawned deception), Directing (setting out on the right path), Turning Into (the process turned him into an emotional wreck) (see Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Mediators quite naturally take advantage of common metaphors to guide a shift in context and reframe content.  This is generally useful and illustrates the power of even the most casual use of metaphor to direct clients’ attention to aspects of their situation and possibilities not yet considered.  Below are examples of Common Activities used as “guiding” metaphors:

A Mom & a Dad starting to negotiate a divorce:

Guiding Metaphors That Might Be Used By Mediator to Expand Options




Mom:  “The kids need me at home.  There’s so much I have to do to have food in the house and to get them to their activities.  And now so much pressure on me about money, being a single parent…”

Just providing the basic nourishment must keep you busy.

Sometimes you need to cut back to promote growth.

A lot of growing happens when you are not in the garden.

You’re both on the same train, but in different cars.

Although each of you got on at different stations, you will arrive at the destination at the same time.

To make this work we need to play by the rules.

Each side can take time out.



Dad:  “Let’s get on with the divorce, splitting up stuff, deciding on the parenting schedule…”

You’ll be harvesting the results of what’s done now for years.

For what you want to grow you will need to prepare the ground in a certain way.

You want to look down the highway, but we haven’t gotten out of the driveway yet.

Will we plan the general direction, or for every fork in the road?

Are you on the same team with the same game plan?

You have played this game so many times already that you anticipate each other’s strategies.


Note that our attention is on the Source Domain as we consider these examples.  The Source Domain is the one we know the most about.  This coincides with motivation or pressure mediators may experience – namely to orient clients in directions that are better known or better understood to the mediator than that of conflict or a destructive attitude.  In such circumstances if a mediator “uses” metaphor it will be to guide clients.  A familiar example is when a mediator hears clients using war-like language and attempts to intervene with language that invokes a gardening or journey metaphor (see Walker, 1991; Haynes, 1999).

The Guiding Metaphor as Distinct From the Clients’ Operating Metaphors

So far we have considered guiding metaphors and explored major areas of Source Domain content.  But what if we want to understand what metaphors clients are already using, so as to start from the client’s point of view?

When we listen to clients giving their stories, their positions, their proposals, a discerning ear will hear metaphors.  Clients are expressing their perceptions and understandings – their experiences and the meaning they attach to these experiences.  Most such meaning is metaphoric.  Only in very circumscribed and highly familiar situations do people understand the literal meaning of their experiences, and this usually includes only a small fraction of the experience of divorce, family crisis, or even long-standing family conflict. 

You can count on clients in family disputes to be using metaphor almost continuously, even if at first you don’t recognize what metaphors they are using.  As a mediator, when you recognize or uncover clients’ operating metaphors you are joining your clients where they are, in terms of the their own thinking and understanding.  This is distinctly different from simply getting the flavor of their thinking or a sense of their general direction and then intervening with guiding metaphors, as discussed above.

Uncovering Clients’ Operating Metaphors

What do we need to learn so that we more quickly uncover in the Target Domain the metaphors clients are already using – what we call here the clients’ “operating” metaphors?  With the help of work in cognitive science I have identified a number of things:

Incongruity:  Clients focus on problems or disputes as a Target Domain.  This is where to look to detect metaphor operating in a client's thinking.  When checking for the existence of metaphor in something said, we look first for figurative use of language.  Just this instruction alone has helped considerably in sensitizing mediators to the presence of metaphor when it wasn't at first evident.  For example, “He became a second-class citizen in his own family.”

Look for incongruence or "rule-breaking" in the use of language as the client makes distinctions in the context of the Target Domain.  What is the type of rule breaking that produces metaphor?  And how can we learn to identify it consciously?  Again we must devise a practical form.  Practitioners wishing to apply metaphor skillfully must become sensitized to the incongruity and rule-breaking when it occurs spontaneously in spoken utterances.

Elements:  Every metaphor can be thought to have a constituent set of elements.  The elements include the following:  (1) Entities such as Agents, Affected Parties, Locations, Possessions, Obstacles; (2) Events or incidents involving actions or forces exerted by or on entities, movements by or of entities. 

For example, a wife negotiating temporary support says that, because her husband can’t manage money he simply uses everything that comes his way, which leaves less for her; the husband (Agent) moves (Force/Movement) money (Possessions) away from wife (Affected Entity); note that Obstacles and Locations are not explicitly mentioned, but may very well be relevant. 

What questions might be asked?  Take a short description of several mediation situations you might recall and identify elements.  The elements found in the Target Domain will help bring unnoticed material into conscious awareness and uncover operating metaphors.  This is because elements in the Target Domain usually have counterparts in the Source Domain.

Causation:  Certain metaphors are effective in transferring understanding about how mediation clients think about causal relations - how one event may cause another.  Cause and effect questions arise very frequently in the course of mediation.  Cognitive scientists have studied causal metaphors extensively, and the metaphor structure presented here is found across cultures and language groups.

Prototypical causation is the application of physical force by human agency resulting in motion or change of some sort.  In other words, causation is metaphorically understood to be force, particularly force wielded by humans, that has effect.

For example, "Her move to the West Coast makes Father a visitor."  Note that “her move” is the Agent, Father is the Affected Entity, and Force is collapsed into the verb “makes”.  The kinds of questions that would help clarify how causation is actually thought about by the speaker might include:  Is she taking the children away (children as possessions)?  Is she turning Father into a visitor (changing him into something else)?  Has she put Father in a box (moved him into a confined location)?

Such refinements of meaning are often overlooked in mediation, but here is why they can be important:  First of all, the mediator’s clarifying questions aid active listening and help the speaker feel clearly heard.  Second, communications are improved because the other party is likely to understand more of what actually is meant.  Finally, once the operating metaphor is clearly understood it can be extended, thereby expanding options (e.g., in the case where “father is put in a box”, just how sealed is this box?  Can you enter and leave?  Can the box be transported?  Does the box keep out unwanted intrusions?)

Gaps:  Note gaps in how the situation works, leaps of faith, or what you use to make sense of the Target Domain (i.e., the problem, situation, or dispute).

For example:  I asked a divorcing couple if they were both in agreement to go ahead with the divorce, or whether either had reservations.  Wife said she was not sure it was entirely the best thing.  Yet she said she was ready to go ahead with the divorce.  She said she believed that she needed to work on certain issues, and that she probably could somehow have found a way to work on them within the marriage.  But it wasn't happening, a lot of time was passing without change, and she believed it was important to move on. 

In listening to this the gap that I noticed was that she believed it was best to work on the issues, yet she was ready to proceed with the divorce.  She spoke with coherence and integration, so it seemed whole for her and (unlike the husband) I accepted it.  The leap that I took in my own mind was that something was wrong for her to stay in the marriage and work on issues.  Staying where she was seemed either unsafe, scary, precarious, too inactive or something similar.  The "unsafe, scary, precarious, too inactive" ideas are hints of metaphors. 

To understand her account I had to fill in with snippets or scenarios I know about in which people feel unsafe, or etc.  She was an active, outdoors enthusiast so I asked if she believed she may be too near a drop-off or cliff or something like that so she wouldn’t be able to learn new approaches.  She said no, that she felt she was down underground where there was too little air and light and it wouldn't do any good to stay there.  The husband wished it were otherwise, but now he knew better.

Reference Point:  Whose metaphor are we attending to?  Which, of many perspectives available to that person, are we attending to?  Pay attention to which person’s metaphor is in focus and what that person is trying to understand.  It is common to switch from one reference point to another, but avoid this (at least initially).  Stay focused on one person’s metaphor of one situation at a time.

For example, if two parents are talking about parenting their children, each parent has at least one metaphor operating as to the children, their needs, etc.  They may have others about each other, the effect of the children on themselves, and so forth.  You will uncover more metaphors as you learn to distinguish reference points.

Additional Features of the Target Domain:  Organizational Layers and Sequences are additional aspects of metaphor, but space does not permit discussion of them here.

(Workshop presentation materials can be found here.}


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