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What is Metaphor
How Can Metaphor Resolve Problems and Conflicts?

Metaphor_&_Conflict Resolution        Bridge_Between_Known_&_Unknown       Disputes_Are_Conceptual        Conceptual_Metaphor        Operating_Metaphor        Scientific_Study        Conscious_Awareness        Main_Strategy        Mediators_Use_Metaphor_Unconsciously        Looking_Ahead

Metaphor and Conflict Resolution

We all know of cases where the use of metaphor has been key to resolving a conflict.  Metaphor can be very influential and work swiftly and effortlessly to promote a successful mediation or negotiation.  When skillfully used, metaphor is unobtrusive to the point of being unnoticed.  It operates coherently and holistically, without analysis, explanation or persuasion.

Clients often experience a problem or dispute by being "in" it, being surrounded by it and wrestling with it, and having strong feelings of like and dislike.  Resolution may only be possible by thinking differently.  Thinking offers the possibility of distancing a person from the problem or dispute and moving parts of it from the foreground to the background. This allows one to approach the problem at a different level, reconstruct it from another point of view, or engage it using a different mental function.

To resolve conflict clients must change their positions on key issues having to do with amounts of money, time, access to resources and commitments to action.   But people's positions on such factors, while partly a function of getting the facts and determining their validity, are very dependent on unconscious assumptions.  These assumptions would be considered "common sense" by those holding them.  Work in the cognitive sciences over the last twenty years has revealed the degree to which our unconscious assumptions arise from systems of interacting metaphor operating in the mind.  This means that every interpretation, idea, position or proposal stated explicitly in words comes from a metaphor structure that, most often, is implicit and unstated.

Studies of how people negotiate the resolution of conflict focus largely on their thinking processes.  Many current theorists and researchers now believe that thinking consists largely in the use of metaphor.  Metaphor describes one's life space in the here-and-now and interprets the meaning of various elements of a dispute as it structures and organizes negotiations. Note 1.

Metaphor works by organizing and interpreting experience and by positioning one relative to the problem.  If one is skilled in using metaphor consciously, it becomes possible to reorganize, re-interpret and re-position, thereby directing attention to where solutions may be more easily found.   Through metaphor large amounts of information are automatically assimilated, abstract ideas conveyed, alternative perspectives and possibilities are unconsciously integrated, and new inferences become possible.  Besides revealing hidden assumptions, metaphor re-casts the logic of facts, emotions, needs, intuitions and behaviors, and brings them into a working whole.  Metaphors categorize information, assign probabilities, hide some things and fill in when information is missing.  This affects how difficulties are thought about and how the meaning of things is created and communicated.

If we skillfully use metaphor in the resolution of disputes does that mean that disputants who once thought in different ways will begin to think the same?  Does the resolution of conflict require that disputants employ the same metaphors in their thinking?  Not necessarily.  Metaphor exists at several levels.  For example, different metaphors interpret cultural, social, individual, and situational dynamics.  Organizationally, metaphors draw attention to the direction of activity, strategies in carrying it out, and the actual performance of an activity.  Psychologically, metaphors structure one's identity, beliefs, values, skills and behaviors.  

Metaphor is at the root of essential concepts such as that of emotion, human relations, economics, our wants and needs, time, the self, life, death and causality.  Resolving disputes may sometimes best be done by identifying the kinds of metaphors around which a dispute revolves and simply helping disputants understand the differences.  In other cases it may depend on fleshing out metaphors that are already operating but are in some way incongruent, incomplete or underutilized.  Entirely new metaphors may be introduced or may be co-created during negotiation discussions.

Because metaphor is so influential in creating our subjective realities and what they mean to us, skillful use of metaphor can take dispute resolution beyond the question of who is going to get what.  It offers particular help when we are hoping not just to encourage compromise or impose settlement but to remedy underlying issues and resolve matters at a depth that brings more real satisfaction.

Bridge Between Known and Unknown

Too often we automatically assume that to learn something or change our thinking we are required to get new information.  In fact a large portion of what we learn is cognitive, not informational.  It is cognitive in the sense that new learning so often consists of reorganizing or re-conceptualizing information already available to us.  Metaphor is a primary way that we frame, categorize and conceptualize.  It not only influences our language, but more importantly, governs the inferences we make.  Metaphor is basic to how we assimilate and accommodate experience or information and thus learn about the world, ourselves and others.  

Metaphor works by drawing attention to unnoticed similarities and connections, offering new ways to perceive and understand.  It does this by placing an object of interest in two distinct perspectives simultaneously.  That is, metaphor makes two concepts or ideas operative in the mind at the same time.  The properties of an object (a situation, person or process) thus stand out with connections and importance different than before.  The tension between the two perspectives, concepts or ideas in the mind at the same time leads to a transfer of intelligence between the two.  The result is a blending of seemingly disparate aspects or events into a single whole and a reorganization of one's thinking about what the object is, or how and why it works.

The two distinct perspectives are often referred to as the "Source Domain" and "Target Domain" Note 2.  The Target is the situation you face, the topic, problem or dispute at hand, that is initially understood -- usually with some uncertainty -- according to one point of view or perspective.  When metaphor is introduced it opens up a Source Domain.  The Source is often very familiar and different at the same time.  While it has natural parallels with the Target, the Source includes additional elements, relationships and inferential structure.

The Target and Source domains interact and operate on each other to produce a cognitive effect -- a change in thinking.  Because the Source is usually grounded in experience and therefore more familiar, richer and better understood (while the Target is more uncertain) the effect of metaphor is to transfer understanding from the better-known Source to the lesser-known Target.  Another way to say this is that the Source becomes a vehicle or a mental model used to understand the Target.

Examples are found in Illustrations and in the Workshop Materials linked from the bottom of this section.

Disputes Involve Conceptual, Metaphoric Thinking

How an individual thinks about a problem or dispute will determine, to a large extent, how he or she defines it, approaches it, and engages it.  When two or more people are in dispute over conflicting claims, they have much more to deal with than which one gets his or her way.  This is because simple, ordinarily differences in thinking are likely to produce divergent problem definitions, incoherent approaches and clashing styles of engagement.  As mentioned above, metaphor exists at several levels and conflict can originate in any one of them, usually outside of conscious awareness.

In addition, the negotiations we wish to mediate so often involve conceptual or abstract thinking, such as interpretations of emotions, personality, interpersonal relations, motivation, assignment of responsibility, and predictions about future outcomes.  Such abstract thinking is most likely to be metaphoric and to be structured differently by different people.  Therefore it will be subject to significant misunderstanding.

Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphor exists at the level of culture, social relations, and individual here-and-now experience.  So people use metaphors based on their societal background, the dynamics of particular groups they belong to, as well as their own cognitive propensities and individual experience.  When you consider all these levels and how many conflicting metaphors might be in use by clients trying to negotiate resolution of a dispute, using metaphor in mediation may seem overwhelming   There is, however, a group of metaphors grounded in repeatable, physical experience almost all humans have in common, based upon moving the body against gravity in three-dimensional space, handling objects, and encountering common obstacles.

Metaphor of this type is called Primary Conceptual Metaphor and maps the logic and inference structure from the sensorimotor domain to the domain of non-physical subjective experience.  This capitalizes on our abilities to operate successfully in physical space and to transfer the structure of these abilities for use in thinking about more abstract domains where currently there may not be sufficient understanding, such as our subjective experience of family relations, work, managing ourselves under stress, etc.

We know a lot about physically moving our bodies, getting around in the material world, handling, using, and altering things in our environment.  This engrained experience is a rich source of intelligence, logic, ability and skill that we already use (largely unconsciously) and can learn to use more effectively in all kinds of other situations.  Metaphor captures these sources and projects them for use in the present (target) situation.  We already do this naturally, unconsciously.  Skilled use of metaphor expands this process and brings it into conscious awareness.  (See more about differences between Primary Conceptual Metaphor and conventional metaphor.)

Emphasis on What Metaphor is Operating Already

If the mediator isn’t attuned to the metaphors that are already operating unconsciously in clients’ thinking and language, and responds with literal language or other metaphors that are not aligned with those of clients, results will be sub optimal.  On the other hand, the mediator can choose to join in the use of the client’s metaphors and clarify issues using the same terms.  Also the mediator may interact with clients in way that co-creates the most useful metaphors.

A mediator can make immediate progress by helping clients bring their metaphoric thinking into the open.  Clarifying implicit, operating metaphors assists clients in explaining what they mean and the revealed structure of a metaphor automatically offers new options and alternatives.  Just about every thought or discussion relies on metaphor to express meaning.  The language need not evoke rich imagery or flowery allusion to be powerfully metaphoric. 

Each client statement or action can be taken as a metaphor fragment.  The metaphor structure may depend on nothing more unusual than, for example, reference to force, movement, boundaries and changes in location.  If we simply look for such references in conversation, we will begin to understand the speaker's mental model of his or her reality.  In this way we can identify the speaker's explanation for what has happened in the past or predictions for the future.

Scientific Study of Metaphor

Until recently, expert use of metaphor has been tricky to learn.  However, the formal study of metaphor over the last 20 years in psychology, linguistics and cognitive science gives us a deeper and more systematic understanding of metaphor.  Some of the cognitive scientists in the forefront of metaphor research today have concluded that human thought is primarily metaphoric in nature – that metaphor is at the heart of most of our thinking, how we conceptualize experience, and the basic metabolism of our cognition.  

Social psychologists, cross-cultural researchers and specialists in organizational behavior now study how metaphor constructs social reality and determines how people orient themselves to changing situations.  By documenting the metaphors people actually use, research has shifted from a focus on static traits in average situations to dynamic orientations in fluid situations.

A growing literature in cognitive science demonstrates how metaphor serves as the foundation for complex thinking, reasoning and language.  This scientific work makes the use of metaphor much more accessible to us.          More about What Metaphor Is

Bringing the Metaphoric Process into Conscious Awareness

We are all familiar with the use of rational argument, information exchange, comparisons, explanation, and other direct attempts to access and influence people's thinking or points of view.  Also we know how to use analogy or simile, stories and parables which introduce alternative perspectives explicitly.  Metaphor is different from these -- both more subtle and more powerful -- because it can feel and sound "normal", unobtrusive, and free of presuppositions or prescriptions.

Since the use of metaphor is largely unconscious, for us to become effective in using it we must bring the metaphoric nature of thinking and everyday language into conscious awareness.  We can put many of the concepts and findings of cognitive science to work helping us learn the distinctions that, in turn, will bring the use of metaphor into conscious awareness.

Metaphor, when consciously used, can not only shift thinking, but also bring unconscious remembering and self-talk into everyday awareness.  Conscious use of metaphor changes our view of the current situation, distances us from it and can change our focus and the paradigm we use in thinking about it.  If we are skilled in using metaphor we can markedly increase our effectiveness to frame and guide the conflict resolution process.

Three-Step Strategy in Expert Use of Metaphor

A mediator’s conscious experience and comprehension of metaphor promotes three essential processes, which are abundantly illustrated in what comes later:

bulletListening for indications of each client's operating metaphor,
bulletImproving communications by asking questions to get better understanding of operating metaphors, and
bulletExpanding options by extending their operating metaphors where possible to increase options.

Mediators Are Also Using Metaphor Unconsciously

It is not just the clients whose thinking depends on metaphor.  If you consider how we practice mediation and how various trainers and authors around the world describe the process, you will find great variety in the explanations of how the mediation process works and different approaches mediators may take.  Look closely and you will find metaphor at the root of these explanations and approaches. 

Looking Ahead

Below is a preview (using the operatives of Listening, Questioning, and Extending mentioned above) of three structural aspects of metaphor:


Source and Target Domains


Bodily Movement and Object Manipulation


Causal Events in Metaphor

    Under Development

Making distinctions between Source and Target Domains, types and qualities of Bodily Movement, and the elements of Cause and Effect – all help to bring metaphor more into conscious awareness.  These are among the topics to be considered in detail in the Workshop Materials.

More about What Metaphor Is

It is recommended that you see notes on Navigating  before you go on to the Workshop Materials: Metaphor in Mediation Main Menu  


1.  A discussion of dominant paradigms in behavioral research on negotiation is given in Gelfand & McCusker (2001, p.1-2).  Further discussion of paradigms used to study conflict, by Wendell Jones, can be found on this site.

2  The Source and Target Domains are sometimes referred to in the cognitive science literature as conceptual spaces or mental spaces.  The Target Domain has also been called the tenor or the topic.  The Source Domain has also been called the vehicle.  Some researchers (Fauconnier & Sweetser, 1996) propose a conceptual integration network of four spaces -- Target, Source, Generic and Blended: the Target and Source spaces share common, low-level knowledge in the Generic space.  The transfer of intelligence results in a Blended space without altering the original Source and Target.  See "blending" in Metaphor Links for a summary.