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, 2003

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


The material printed below is intended to provide additional depth for those interested in the workshop presentation.

Metaphor is in constant use by mediators in explaining their work, as well as by those who are learning about mediation.  This is the case not only because mediation deals with hidden processes, inner states, abstract concepts and other subjectively experienced matters that are hard to know objectively and hence understood figuratively, but also because figurative language can communicate so much richness so quickly.

How we mediate will be influenced by how we think about the mediation process.  And how we think about it will depend on inherent metaphors that we have consciously or unconsciously adopted.  In any account of the mediation process metaphors are in use throughout.  What we learn or understand from, for example, a book or article about mediation comes in part from what we consciously gain from the explicit logic and literal meanings expressed, and probably as much or more from what we unconsciously take from everyday metaphors used in the text.

If I were to introduce a co-mediator to my mediation process by saying, "Now, these clients are in serious disagreement and we are going to have to knock heads together to get resolution," that choice of words would send a certain message about how I plan to mediate.  On the other hand if I say, "Now, these clients are in serious disagreement and we are going to have to let them stew awhile in their own juices to get resolution," almost anyone will immediately get a very different idea about how I intend to proceed.  Note that the italicized words convey in the first instance active, even aggressive actions on the part of the mediators.  In the second instance the mediators' actions are depicted as more passive, letting an existing process work its course.  These meanings or impressions are the ones that are more consciously conveyed as I speak and consciously processed by my co-mediator.

But there are other important meanings conveyed that you may not immediately notice.  They have infiltrated your thinking automatically in order for you to understand my figurative language at all.  This "infiltration" is the cognitive structure that underlies the italicized words – the cognitive metaphor operating in the thinking process that inevitably accompanies any choice of metaphoric language.  So, in the first instance when I spoke of knocking heads together I can count on you understanding a number of things automatically:  You know we will not literally bang our clients' skulls together; we will be active; we will confront clients with their differences; we will make their disagreement ever more obvious to them; we will contain the process so they can't easily get away; what is going on inside those clanging heads will be changed by what we do; the changes are expected to lead to resolution, perhaps motivated by desire to escape the pain.

In the second instance where I suggest that we let them stew awhile in their own juices I can safely assume you to have simmered a soup or stew and know how the inherent flavors come out, how things get softer in time, how a container is used to do this, etc.  In addition my meaning depends on the idea that heat must first be applied, perhaps by the mediators – not too hot or too cool – and that the solution is in there somewhere and will come out on its own.

In both instances the assumptions are that solutions to conflict are already inside the disputants and that the mediators play important roles in releasing them.  In this sense, solutions are conceived as substances that, once released, somehow organize themselves into something of use that can be taken, perhaps further processed, and applied to the dispute.  The dispute, itself, is now understood to have the qualities of a thing, object, or substance that can be changed when certain other things are brought in contact.

These underlying cognitive structures constrain thought and channel it along certain paths.  But I'm not suggesting that these assumed meanings constitute the total of what is communicated.  Only that these senses are inherent in the particular choice of words and will inevitably operate to some extent in the thinking of the mediators.  Most likely there are other metaphors and literal meanings that will be operating at the same time to further modify the mediators' thinking – perhaps to make it more specific and clear, perhaps to enrich it, or perhaps introducing contradiction, murkiness or confusion.  This is why attention to metaphor in our accounts of how mediation works, underpinned by its unique and everyday cognitive structure, along with literal meaning and explicit logic, is important to take together.

Some General Metaphor Principles Related to Conflict Resolution

The inevitability of metaphoric thinking during conflict automatically leads to two things: (1) it multiplies the possibilities for misunderstanding and (2) it presents diverse opportunities for creative intervention.  A broad capability to identify and use metaphor would enable the practitioner to cut through the former and properly exploit the latter.

To help us learn about how metaphor works we consult the large and developing body of literature on conceptual metaphor theory that has come out of the fields of cognitive linguistics and psychology over the last twenty-five years (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, and Kövecses, 2002, are general expositions).  By understanding metaphor, we gain insight into much of what is effective and ineffective in conflict resolution practices, and suggestions arise as to what is needed for greater success. 

Target and Source Domains – Bridge Between Known and Unknown

A major distinction is between the target and source domains.  Metaphor organizes what, relatively speaking, is unknown or uncertain and usually more abstract (the target domain) in terms of something that is better known through direct, more concrete and grounded experience (the source domain).  One concept, situation or domain is used metaphorically to describe or understand the contents, scope, interactions and logic of something else. 

As a form of shorthand we say that the target domain is metaphorically understood as the source domain, or Target is Source.  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.  Taking the common example of fighting over divorce, the shorthand would be Divorce is War (this divorce negotiation is metaphorically understood as a war).

So, if someone says, "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.  We speak and think in terms of these commonplace metaphors because so many abstract processes – such as, in these examples, dealing with uncertainty, investigating, exploring – are often not concretely known or directly observable to us.  So we speak of such things in terms of something else that we know more about.  The shorthand expression for these metaphors might be Investigating is Smelling or Exploring is Poking; a more general expression might be Learning About the Unknown is Sensing With the Body.

Metaphors Evoke Vivid Implications

Metaphors are often introduced through the use of figurative language (highlighted in italics). Once introduced, they bring with them not only a range of entailed attributes but also a durable, multi-faceted structure from which inferences will be made that influence subsequent thinking and expression.  Again taking the familiar war metaphor and reflecting briefly on the idea of war we will realize almost instantly that war entails aggression, multiple battles, shooting, sacrifice, collateral damage, being exclusively right, winning, deceit, injuries, sieges, destruction, granting concessions only from strength, and a host of others. 

Such implications appear in the language used.  When this metaphor is implicitly used by disputants we may hear descriptions such as, “They battled over custody,” “She laid siege to the property, forcing his surrender,”  “Every proposal was shot down.  A mediator’s attempts to shift clients to the metaphor of a common journey might be illustrated by, “Let’s focus on the steps necessary to reach a settlement.”

Typical Source Domains of Conventional Metaphors

Such metaphors are “conventional” and widely understood.  They come from the source domain of the human body.  Because we know so much from direct experience about what is entailed in the body’s habitual orientations, movements and feelings, it is naturally a very widely used source domain.  Consequently, human body metaphors will come up for most people dozens of times each day to express metaphorical understanding of a great many abstract or subjectively experienced matters (further examples: “I hit on the answer,” ”He faced the task and pushed on,” ”A weighty idea”).  Other very common source domains (Kövecses, 2002) are given below with language examples and shorthand notations in parentheses:

q    Health and illness (She’s fit for the job,” Suitability For Work is Health)

q    Animals (You weasel!” Person is Animal, Particular Person is Cunning Animal)

q    Plants (“He blossomed,” Person is Plant)

q    Buildings and construction (The case is baseless,” Case is a Building)

q    Machines and tools (The plan ran like clockwork,” Plan is a Machine)

q    Game and sport (”Mediation depends on ground rules,” Mediation is a Game)

q    Economic transactions (”She’s invested in that view,” Perspective is  a Transaction)

q    Cooking and food (“After the news he simmered for days,” Anger is Being Cooked)

q    Heat and cold (“What’s hot?Importance/Excitement is Temperature),

q    Light and darkness (That shed light on it,” Knowledge is Light)

q    Forces (He was induced to agree, Persuasion is Physical Force)

q    Movement and direction (“She’s one up,” Social Advantage/Disadvantage is Up/Down)

These examples illustrate the widespread use of conventional metaphor from only a dozen or so of the most popular source domains.  I have presented the examples to highlight how target domains are metaphorically understood from source domains.  Such metaphors transfer ideas, logic and inferences from sources that are very familiar to targets that are more subjective and uncertain.  The examples give a simple shorthand notation for naming metaphors and indicate how this notation can be used to refer to the mapping of the source domain’s entailments onto the target.

Metaphor Structures Guide Thinking

Besides their entailments conceptual metaphors have a number of structural features that extend their impact in specific ways.  We can find evidence of how metaphors guide and constrain thinking by looking at what we must know and think for a metaphor to make sense and lead to certain conclusions.  The structural features that we will consider here are metaphoric correspondence mappings, inference structure and generic-level structure.

Correspondence Mappings

The illustrative phrases given above make sense to the extent that the elements of the target domain have a one-to-one correspondence with their counterparts in the source domain.  Take the example, “They battled over custody” – Divorce Negotiation is War:

·        The two divorcing parents correspond to the two enemies in war.

·        Mutually exclusive arguments in divorce correspond to exclusivity of justifications in war.

·        Taking over the children corresponds to taking over territory.

·        The decision on custody corresponds to outcome of one of the battles of a war.

·        Prejudicing the children against the other parent corresponds to war propaganda.

·        Suffering of the children corresponds to damage to territory fought over in war.

These are just some of the element-by-element correspondences for this example. While not necessarily coming to mind immediately they make sense once introduced.  And they make sense because one’s familiarity with the source domain has formed a largely unconscious structure of inferences ready to guide and constrain the thought processes, predisposing certain conclusions and not others. 

Once these correspondences become conscious they can be re-directed or changed.  Yet changing one or two may not re-direct the overall thrust of the governing metaphor.  These correspondences are integral parts of a whole not easily manipulated piecemeal, unless you have access to certain key aspects.  To aid in understanding what may be the key aspects let us look more closely at how the metaphor we use to understand a situation can influence our inferences and conclusions

Implicit Patterns of Inference in Conceptual Metaphor

Take this example about a divorced mother who is disputing with her ex-husband which school their child should now attend:  She wants their child to “stay in the same school to continue the path they started.”  The italicized words suggest the metaphor School is a Journey.

What must one understand to interpret the italicized words in the above example?  You have to know that continuing a path implies a channel or route on which to continue and that a destination or goal is part of it, usually at the end.  You also know that starting and continuing imply specific locations in some known proximity to each other that can be mapped, along with intermediate locations, implying progress along the way to a destination.  Step-by-step movement the length of this route is implied.  Relocating somewhere else or moving away from this route means that the destination will not be reached or be more difficult to reach.  This illustrates an implicit inference structure in the School is a Journey metaphor.

Generic-Level Structure

Most conceptual metaphors have what are called generic-level metaphoric elements within them, the source domain for which is often the human body (Lakoff, 1993).  These elements correspond to facets of bodily experience highly familiar to almost everyone, including Agents, Force or Movement, Affected Parties, Locations in space and Obstacles.  Our generic understanding of what events there are, how they occur, what change is made, and what cause produces what effect have been found to be built up out of these elements (this is what Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, call “event structure”). 

The extensive meaning imparted by this very compact generic-level structure – although we are consciously analyzing it here – requires no conscious reflection to do its work of setting up specific thought processes.  Bringing this structure into conscious awareness can help us make more purposeful and flexible use of it.  Recognition of these elements allows us to uncover implicit meanings in what disputants are saying, alerts us to what we need to find out, and suggests different entry points for intervention.  Without this awareness many clues to underlying conflict and opportunities for facilitation are likely to be missed.

The Journey Metaphor – Illustrations of A Very Conventional Metaphor

Is there a principal metaphor through which mediation and conflict resolution is understood by mediators and negotiators?  If there is a single such metaphor it may well be "mediation is a journey."  One begins this journey with a dispute or conflict and ends up at a destination that was in mind before the conflict got in the way.  The resolution of the conflict is the way through (over, around) the dispute and several steps are likely to be taken in between.  If the conflict is intractable, you don't get very far in this journey, unless you find a way around the impasse.  Disputants must choose their route, travel more or less in parallel, and be of assistance to each other, but not necessarily walk side by side.  Sometimes they must negotiate difficult turns or maneuvers.  A mediator can serve as a guide who travels similar routes over and over again and can offer help along the way, but who does not take the trip for the travelers.

As parallels from an allied profession let us look at how two very different forms of psychotherapy are each understood using the journey metaphor – psychoanalysis and brief psychotherapy.

Dingwall and Miller (2002) present similarities between solution-focused brief psychotherapy and mediation that, I propose, are readily understood metaphorically as a journey.  Before beginning, it is of interest to note that brief psychotherapy arose in a movement opposing psychoanalysis and other classic forms of psychotherapy. Those classic forms are premised on months or even years of treatment where the therapist is the expert, the patient a passive recipient, and the emphasis put on past history as the source of current difficulties.  Solution-focused brief psychotherapy seeks to vastly shorten the period of therapy, focus on practical improvements in the present and near future, and capitalize on the client as an expert with applicable knowledge and skills.  As you read what follows, note that brief psychotherapists can be said to be offering a guiding metaphor to clients – the metaphor that they are on a journey.

To begin, Dingwall and Miller (2002) stress that brief therapy (and facilitative mediation) is intended to help clients "get on with their lives" (p 275).  The implication is that clients are already actively moving forward in many ways thanks to their own competencies.  Although certain roadblocks or impasses may be impeding them at the moment, therapeutic questions and comments that help them reflect on how far they have come, and how they have already been able to negotiate other complexities successfully, will be effective in finding where they are on the map relative to their destination, seeing what alternative routes are available and getting back in the driver's seat.

Dingwall and Miller (2002) offer three particular techniques that characterize brief therapy and can be useful as well to mediators assisting clients in resolving conflict.  Until we understand them metaphorically in terms of a journey, these techniques may seem somewhat arbitrary or ad hoc in their application. 

The first technique is the use of "exception questions" such as, "When was this problem less severe or even absent?"  When clients focus on a problem the therapist, by asking such a question as this, refocuses on those occasions when this problem or conflict was not such an obstacle and when, as a result, the clients more successfully reached their goal.  In this way the therapist emphasizes forward movement that the clients' own skills have already made possible.  This makes the problems or conflicts exceptions to an otherwise satisfactory course of action, and prompts clients to apply their existing knowledge so as to cope and move on.

The second solution-focused therapeutic technique is to ask "scaling questions" such as, "How would you rate where you are now (on a scale of 1 to 10) and what would be required for you to improve that rating by 1 point?"  This is readily understood as what percent of the way are you toward your destination, and what ground needs to be covered (landmarks passed, way stations reached) to get closer by an additional 10%.  Almost any issue, when "scaled" in this way, can be conceptualized in terms of a journey:  If the issue is confidence, scaling it puts the client somewhere on a road between low and high confidence; if the issue is adequately caring for the children, scaling plots the current location on a map showing the steps necessary to reach adequacy.  As with any trip through largely unfamiliar territory, the clients' clarity about where they are currently located and where they actually expect to end up will change as they express themselves and get feedback.

The third solution-focused brief therapy technique is the "miracle question" such as, "If you were to wake up tomorrow and had, by some miracle, gotten to where you want to go, what is the information you would rely on to tell you that you had actually gotten there?"  The question moves clients ahead on their journey in a virtual sense so it can be thought about from a future point looking back.  The therapist is likely to follow up with additional questions about the differences between pre- and post-miracle – differences in location, surrounding circumstances, atmosphere, what can be seen from this vantage point, etc.  This highlights what clients already know about their destination and, brings into conscious awareness relevant material that was unconscious or forgotten so that it can be used to further establish one's bearings, plot one's course and move forward.

Note how psychoanalysis contrasts with solution-focused psychotherapy.  Psychoanalysis usually requires years of treatment, is based on developing a thorough understanding of the patient's past history, and depends upon the analyst's revered position and brilliance in making psychological interpretations.  Nevertheless the journey metaphor is very useful in explicating the processes of psychoanalysis just as it has been for understanding techniques in brief, solution-focused psychotherapy.  To understand how mediation is metaphorically understood as a journey, we can learn from Casonato’s (2002) presentation of the psychoanalytic experience as a journey.

First Casonato notes that in psychoanalysis the analysand (client) and analyst join in a long-term, one-on-one venture that can be understood metaphorically as a kind of love relationship.  It starts with the analysand and analyst agreeing to work together and ends after surveying and learning to understand a great expanse of territory together.  So the venture of analysis is a journey. 

But it is also a commitment to working together – particularly through the transference relationship that occurs in psychoanalysis.  As the analysand's history and past experience is traversed, interpreted and better understood, the analyst uses this past history as a kind of metaphor for aspects of the analysand's transference relationship with the analyst.  Thus the analysand has the opportunity to resolve problematic aspects of the past through the transference relationship developed with the analyst in the present.  Psychoanalysis, then, is further understood as a journey through "transference territory."

On a trip, if you get stuck, you have three basic choices: (1) to work around, through, under or otherwise get past the difficulty, (2) stay where you are and remain at that point, or (3) abandon the trip and forego reaching the destination.  These are precisely the options when therapy reaches impasse.  This illustrates the dominance of the metaphoric mapping of journey in the understanding of therapy.  It also illustrates structures of thinking, reasoning and understanding more complex than could be explained using associative or other theories of cognition or concept formation.  This is especially true when you consider the many other correspondences of knowledge that can only be accounted for through metaphorical structuring and interleaving – such as that between crazy drivers, crazy lovers and crazy (wild) therapists.

Psychoanalysis uses interpretations not only of the analysand's narratives and descriptions, comments, associations, errors, etc., but especially of dreams.  Casonato suggests that many, if not most, dreams are readily interpreted in terms of the journey metaphor and can reveal how well analysis is going and the analysand's experience of it.

The analyst’s knowledge of the journey source domain helps him ask questions about traveling alone or with others, who is driving, piloting, guiding, blocking, and how well?  Up in the air, at sea, in jungle, in dark alley, basement?  Is the route clear of wild animals, snakes, pits?  Are you lost, past the station, train missed, destination unknown, light at end of tunnel?  Besides dreams, associations (divergence from path), side comments ("Is this boring to you?"), errors (wrong exit on way to the session, wrong day), missed appointments (missed trains), asking for help (request to lend forgotten bus fare) – all provide opportunities for the analyst to "spin" the analysand's journey narrative out into important territory. 

Casonato says that in metaphors there is an "implicit or potential narrative line… Within the metaphor, the analyst can maneuver to make valid interventions in the course of therapy.”  The parallels with the mediation process are striking but limited space doesn’t allow elaboration here.


Dingwall, Robert & Miller, Gale (2002), Lessons from brief therapy? Some interactional suggestions for family mediators.  Conflict Resolution Quarterly (formerly Mediation Quarterly), 19 (3) 269-288.

Casonato, Marco (2001), Transference: Love, Journeys, and Psychoanalysis, in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, article number 000801M (

Kövecses, Zoltán (2002) Metaphor: A Practical Introduction.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George (1993) Contemporary theory of metaphor.  In Ortony, A. (ed)  Metaphor and Thought (2nd Ed.). New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 202-251.

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark (1999), Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought.  Basic Books.