Guiding Metaphors in the Practice of Mediation of Conflicts: Notes On Metaphors Chosen By a Mediator For Intervention

We all know of cases where a well-chosen metaphor has been key to resolving conflict.  Now, when we, as mediators, choose a metaphor, what we are doing is choosing a Source Domain we think might in some way be helpful to influence thinking about the problem or conflict (Target).

While the section "Uncovering Metaphor" (see Main Menu) should sensitize you to aspects of the Target Domain that indicate the presence of metaphor, this section on forms of metaphor presents several ways to think about the Source Domain of a metaphor.

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 ignored aspects of their situation and to possibilities not yet considered. 

Consider this, quoted from James Melamed's website, as an example of mediators' proclivity for the Guiding Metaphor:

Indirect Techniques:

Metaphors, analogies, quotes, and normative statements are ways of introducing ideas and options through the back door. In doing so, the mediator is advised to work within participant belief and perceptual systems.  The mediator will also want to be outfocused to notice responses from participants. If the idea being introduced is attractive to a participant, you will see the sparkle of attraction in their eyes.  If you sense resistance to the idea being indirectly introduced, be flexible and offer another idea, perhaps by beginning with the word "or."

Shift Participants from Battle Metaphor to a Journey Metaphor.  Most participants will come to the mediation well steeped in the metaphor of conflict as a battle. Mediators are encouraged to work with the participants to convert this war metaphor into a journey metaphor. The mediator can speak in terms of the mediation having a beginning, middle and end. The mediator may speak in terms of going down the path or down the river together, and in terms of ups and downs, or sometimes encountering rough water.

Also see N. Page's list of metaphors and when to use them in mediation.  John Haynes suggests a similar approach.

It is interesting that in speaking of metaphor in mediation how many people take for granted that they will easily know that clients are using unhelpful metaphors and that these client metaphors need to be changed in order to facilitate resolution.  This is the idea that a metaphor forms a perceptual filter, lense or prism "installed in the brain... bends everything we see" (as G. Johnson says in "Fire in the Mind") through which a disputant regards the conflict situation -- and this filter or prism must be altered, removed or replaced.

To this end Suzette Haden Elgin (who states regarding metaphor that, "I know no more powerful or more valuable tool for resolving conflict") presents three methods of coming up with a suitable metaphor to counter the unhelpful ones clients are already using, and then a number of steps for introducing it into the mediation:

          Two of the methods for finding more constructive governing metaphors are analytic in nature.  (1) Listing the semantic features of the key term in the governing metaphor, then finding an alternate key term with most of the same features [somehow such key terms define an alternate metaphor].  (2) List "reality statements" in place of the semantic features and look for ideas that come to you [this one wasn't clear].  (3) Dream-mapping, which consists of using a kind of mind map to name the principal term at the center, quickly write down seven aspects of this, then seven aspects of each of these -- looking for the flash of insight or a crucial term that suggests a better, alternate metaphor.

          Introducing the alternate metaphor into the mediation discussion involves (a) trying not to use the terminology of the clients' governing metaphor, (b) or if this is not possible, identify the roles involved in their metaphor and begin to speak from the most helpful role possible (e.g., if the metaphor is football, choose coach), (c) if your alternate metaphor is a big leap from the one already in play, try intermediate ones first that aren't so different (e.g., needing to go from car on highway to spaceship in space, use sailing ship as intermediate), (d) look for common ground between old and new metaphors (e.g., if one disputant is using football and other is using school teacher, use polite liar as something in common).

Further supporting the notion that mediators can assist disputants in understanding conflict in terms of metaphor Wilmot and Hocker (2001, pp 16-26) discuss sixteen common metaphors.  These can be used to approach conflict or to form one’s perspective on conflict (conflict seen as warlike or violent, as explosive, as a court trial, as a struggle, force of nature, animal behavior, as a mess, as communications breakdown, as a game, as heroic adventure, balancing, bargaining, a tide, garden, dance, or as quilt making).  Their discussion is interesting, not just because they describe so many metaphors, giving entailed characteristics and language examples, but also because they point out which are constructive to the resolution of conflict and which are not.  This is a useful account of the constraining and focusing effects of metaphor, revealing some inference structure (although they do not use conceptual metaphor theory in their discussion).

When a mediator chooses a metaphor not only will the choice be based on metaphor elements and dynamics intended to be helpful to clients, but also the mediator will want the presentation to be evocative without stimulating resistance.  (Professional accountants take this further, sometimes speaking of “metaphoric defamiliarization” (Walters-York, L. M. (1996) “Metaphor in accounting discourse”, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 9(5), 45-70[1]) as the introduction of metaphor that is new or different to the listener in order to break old conceptual connections and examine things in a new light, such as when accounting standards are presented not as a conceptual framework but as “conceptual underwear” (Page, M, & Spira, L. (1999), “The Conceptual Underwear of Financial Reporting”,  Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 12(4)489-501).  Professional copy writers are pitched as follows: “…Communicators too often think of metaphor as a poetic doodah that has no place in serious nonfiction writing. Not true. Metaphors are a workhorse of all meaningful writing… get their power from the fact that they compare the subject you're writing about to something that's more familiar to the audience. That way, they help our audience members understand new, complex information by means of something they already understand.  [Buy this book of] techniques for crafting compelling metaphors.”[2])

Allegories may contain an element or character that corresponds metaphorically with one of the clients.  This may allow the client to consider logic, inferences, directions or behavior appropriate for him/herself without consciously applying it.

"Sensitizing" or "priming" is an effect in psychological laboratory experimentation that direct subjects to modes of thinking that might bias responses.  This effect can be used deliberately also in order to amplify and make more measurable certain possible differences between subjects.  This paradigm might be modified for use where it was desired to sensitize or prime clients to use metaphors the mediator might introduce.  For example, drawings or stories might casually be shown that show mappings in one (e.g., visual) modality, and then the mediator could introduce metaphors later (aurally) and expect mapping to be more readily achieved (see sensitization in "Related Subjects" at bottom of right column of Main Menu).

Cameron (2003) reviews several ways that metaphor has been shown to mediate learning:

·        Simple transfer of attributes and relational structure from source to target (depends upon one’s knowledge of the source domain).

·        More dramatic breaking down of existing structure to restructure one’s concepts or understanding using a new frame or terms of reference.

·        Filling in gaps in existing knowledge or understanding through a comparison between target and source, which might lead to a search for additional information.

·        Analogical reasoning, where what is to be learned, or problem to be solved, follows the pattern set up in an analogy; this also depends on one’s prior knowledge of the source domain (often lacking in younger or less experienced individuals) as well as prompting or suggestion to make use of the analogy.

·        Mnemonic value, when a metaphor reminds one of something already known.


Implicit (if not explicit) in the structure of any metaphor are layers of organization, elements, causation, sequence, and more.  A metaphor can be evoked when only a fraction of its entire structure is introduced, and more emerges depending on how thinking proceeds or is directed.


[Notes:  Other subheadings in the "Range of Source Domains" could also be: Power, Navigation, Exchanges, Sorting, Science, Computers, Evolution...]

[1] The abstract of this article is as follows:  The more orthodox versions of our discipline as well as other social sciences are grounded in the common presupposition that science and philosophy be expounded by an especially true level of language characterized by precision and absence of ambiguity. For this reason, tropological linguistic forms such as metaphor are often held to be illicit, as unimportant or nonessential frills, deviant and parasitic on normal usage, for use by none but the poet. Argues that metaphor, far from being a mere stylistic device, is an indispensable, and indeed inseparable ingredient of all discourses whether literary, scientific, philosophical, or accounting. Draws heavily on Black’s (1962, 1978, 1993) interaction account of metaphor as a basis for explicating the poetic and rhetorical roles that metaphor may play in accounting discourse. Through presentation of three primary propositions with supporting metaphoric illustrations, suggests that metaphor is very much a part of the way in which accountants create and disseminate meaning about the world as both part of mundane accounting discourse and extensions of discursive practices.”

[2] ·  “…copyrighted four-step process for forcing a metaphor. (This works great whether you're in a brainstorming meeting or alone at your desk trying to crunch out a good comparison.)

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·  The question to ask to get a metaphor in an interview

·  Ann's copyrighted fill-in-the-blanks formula for writing a fascinating metaphor. (Writing compelling copy has never been this easy!)

·  More than a dozen world-class metaphors to model. (Use the techniques of these masters to develop and craft your own winning metaphors.)

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