Metaphor In Mediation

Workshop presented at
The International Association for Conflict Management (IACM)
14th Annual Conference

ESSEC Business School, Cergy-Pontoise (Paris) France
June 26, 2001

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


Workshop to Develop Flexible, Naturalistic Facility with Metaphor

This is a workshop on the use of metaphor in mediation.   You will learn a number of key strategies to help you develop a flexible, naturalistic facility with metaphor -- a facility you can apply in real time during negotiations, no matter the subject matter being negotiated, or the culture, educational level or sophistication of the participants.

Metaphor Spontaneously Used

You probably have already found yourself using metaphor in negotiations or as you help others to negotiate.  Certainly you have noticed others doing so.  Metaphor is a spontaneous form of expression.

Metaphor is Powerful and Efficient in its Effect. 

It works quickly and holistically to impart information, expand viewpoints, and reorganize people's thinking.

Finding:  Human Thinking Based Mostly on Metaphor

Now, after 25 years of productive research and theory development in linguistics, philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, a great deal has been learned.  One likely reason that metaphor is used spontaneously and is so powerful and efficient is that human thinking is based largely on metaphor.  That is, metaphor is at the heart of human cognition so it naturally emerges as a form of expression and is quite easily assimilated in communication.

Finding:  Most Metaphoric Thinking is Outside of Conscious Awareness

But metaphor research has clarified something else as well.  It is that most of the metaphoric thinking process goes on outside of conscious awareness.  Although we are thinking metaphorically, we may only be conscious of the results, overlooking the process.  We are thinking figuratively yet being aware only of the end product, and most of the time taking it to be quite literal.

Learn Tools to Bring Metaphoric Thinking into Conscious Awareness

To use metaphor skillfully and flexibly, therefore, 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 happily much of the recent work in cognitive science can be adapted to help us develop our skill in using metaphor.

Workshop Main Sections:

Listening, Questioning, Extending

When mediators learn to use metaphor flexibly, this promotes the three essential processes most mediators agree are at the core of mediation:

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

§         Improving communications by asking questions to get better understanding of what clients mean. 

§         A main tenet of mediation is to enlarge the available alternatives that clients may choose among. 

Target and Source Domains

Metaphor organizes the unknown (what is called the Target Domain) in terms of the known (the Source Domain).

Uncovering Metaphor

Focus on Target Domain.  Identifying figurative language, words the full meaning of which is not available from Target Domain.

Bodily Movement Metaphor

We shall focus on metaphors of common bodily movement patterns, movement in bounded regions of space (containers) and with constraints (such as obstacles and gravity), and handling or manipulating objects (including possessions).  Clusters include:  Location/Container; Moving/Locomotion; Balance; Seeing; Handling; Objects/Structure.  (These clusters were inspired by empirical findings but are interpretive and heuristic, more than a summary of findings.)  We can listen for words suggesting metaphors in any of these clusters, and then ask questions, explore and extend metaphors based on the logic of bodily movement in space.

Cause and Effect Metaphor

Cause and Effect metaphors are a major system within bodily movement metaphors.  Main elements:  Agent, Affected Entity, Force/Movement, Locations, Possession, Obstacles.  When we encounter a cause and effect metaphor, we can explore the presence or absence of each of these elements.

The Event Sequence

The “embodiment hypothesis” says that cognition (including metaphor) is organized in the same manner as behavior, which demonstrates the following sequence of events:  Begin Startup, Startup process, End Startup, Begin Main Process, Interruptions, Continue, End Main Process.  Awareness of the Event Sequence allows us to extend or “complete” metaphors using logic innate to human cognition.