Complex Metaphor -- Cycles, Multiple Levels,
Web Structure

Under Development

Dynamic Metaphors

Intractable Conflict

Chaos Theory

Other Related Topics

Complex Multi-Party, Multi-Issue Negotiations

Systems Metaphors

Vicious Cycle Metaphors

Metaphor Webs

What to Do If You Can’t Detect a Metaphor

Abstract or Compressed Language

Overlapping, Nested or Layered Metaphor

What, How and Why Levels in Metaphor


Dynamic Metaphors From Theories of Chaos and Complexity

Metaphors to understand intractable conflict as an attractor of a dynamical system has been discussed by Nowak, Vallacher, Bui-Wrzosinska, and Coleman (in press) (see website) and is abstracted below:

     From a dynamical perspective, the maintenance of… negative mental and behavioral patterns can be couched in terms of attractor dynamics.  An attractor is a state or a reliable pattern of changes (e.g., periodic oscillation) toward which a dynamical system evolves over time, and to which the system returns after it has been perturbed.  Attempting to move the system out of its attractor promotes forces that reinstate the system at its attractor.  [M]alignant conflict is associated with the emergence of strong, stable attractors that represent stable patterns of thought, feeling, and action on the part of group members.  In effect, the attractor “attracts” a wide variety of mental and behavioral states to a negative and destructive state that becomes self-perpetuating.   

     The essence of the attractor concept and the relevance of attractors for conflict can be captured in a simple metaphor.  Figure 1 portrays a ball on a hilly landscape.  The ball represents the current state of the system and the valley represents the system’s attractor.  The ball will roll down the hill and come to rest at the bottom of a valley in Figure 1.        









Figure 1.  A dynamical system with two attractors (A and B)


     A system may have more than one attractor.  Figure 1 portrays a system with two attractors (A and B).  Each attractor has its own a basin of attraction—that is, a set of states that will evolve toward the attractor.  Attractors may differ in the width of their respective basins of attraction.  In the figure, the basin of attraction for Attractor A is somewhat wider than the basin of attraction for Attractor B.  This means that a wider variety of states will evolve toward Attractor A than toward Attractor B.  Attractors can also vary in their respective strength, which is depicted as the relative depth of the two valleys in Figure 1.  Attractor B, then, is stronger than Attractor A.  This means that once a system is at Attractor B, it is more difficult for it to be dislodged by external influence….   Efforts to move a system out of its attractor may be successful, however, if sufficient force is applied and another attractor is available.  In Figure 1, the system may escape Attractor A and settle in Attractor B if enough force is employed to move the ball up the hill and into the valley representing the basin of attraction for Attractor B.    

Regarding business management, abstracted from Lissack:

Traditional metaphors include [Business is A Game, Business is A Race, Business is War, Doing Business is Running a Machine, Thinking is Operating a Computer, Good Business Person is Self-Interested, Rational, Economic Person, Progress in Business is Progress Along a Known Route Towards a Desired Destination, More Successful Business is Acquiring More Valuable Resources].  Contrast these with those below.

[Successful Business is Orienteering a] Fitness landscape (constantly changing, climb to non-local peak that may differ from competitor); (vs. race with competitors to finish line – success, market share, revenues… where landscape is constant); Attractors.  [Conceptual metaphors involved in fitness landscape include Event Structure elements – States are Locations, Change is Motion, Goals are Destinations, Plan is Following Path – but destinations and paths are ill-defined or in flux.  Orienteering is Sensing for New Features/Change]

[R&D is] Evolution (movement in a space in terms of fitness, survivability, sustainability)

[Business Management is] Self-organization; self-organized criticality; strategy (monitoring both world and actors in it, noting attractors and ready with resources for action; command & control may not work but navigation of continuously changing fitness landscape possible (Land & Maxfield, 1995, Foresight Complexity and Strategy, Santa Fe Papers)

[Business Management is Management of] Chaos; edge of chaos (living systems do best when at cusp of stability and disorder, messiness, rollicking, unregulated); random; sensitivity to initial states, opportunity frontiers, at boundaries between organization and external world, edges of projects vaguely defined, borders permeable, patches identified, flocking occurs, generative relationships (see below) sought.

Simulated annealing – changing temperature to prevent crystallization in current form and improve plasticity, deliberately adding some stress, noise, ignoring some constraints or info to prevent overload (tau) and nudge system out of its attractor basin (out of comfort zone to enhance exploration).  [Conceptual metaphors involved here include Strength is Hardness/Firmness, Efficiency is Repetitive Machine-like Movement, Flexibility is Balanced Movement, Flexibility is (Partly) Unconstrained Movement, Comfort is Not Hot, Exploration is Exiting Container]

Patches – dividing task into non-overlapping spaces and working on each independently (and selfishly); as some patches resolve, relationships with others changes and may facilitate global resolution; communication between autonomous yet coupled patches is required; like co-evolving ecosystems.

Flocking, flocking of resources to areas that seem generative (particularly in critical situations or short-term opportunities).

Information (changes the landscape, data that has been ascribed value) vs. data (noise, diversion in race metaphor; unused potential information/understanding in fitness landscape).

Increasing returns to scale – engaging in activity to produce assets whose value appreciates with time (vs. infrastructure that depreciates).  Depreciating assets have predictable (declining) value; appreciating assets’ future value is speculative, but investments in capability and knowledge are potentially appreciating.

Generative Relationships – (quoted from

Lane & Maxfield define a relationship as generative if it produces "new sources of value that cannot be foreseen in advance." But if you can't know in advance what a relationship will create for the organization, how can you decide which relationships to build, to continue. Complexity theory suggests some essential preconditions, some characteristics to look for or build into relationships.

Preconditions for building Generative Relationships:

·         "aligned directedness" - agreement about a general direction, interest area

·         heterogeneity - differences, diversity of ideas and competencies among agents

·         mutual directedness - interest in and ability to engage in recurring interaction

·         permissions - implicit or explicit permission for parties to engage in explorations

action opportunities - ability, willingness of the agents to engage in joint action, to do more than talk

Look back in time in your organization and think about how new direction actually emerged, where new program ideas came from. Were they all anticipated, "set" in advance in the strategic plan or were generative relationship at work?

Notice the increasing number of "strategic alliances" happening in the business world. Consider whether the conditions for generativeness were in place.

Generative relationships are part of success on the Fitness Landscape by sharing the work in exploring local optima.

Chaologists:  There seems to be a whole echelon of thinkers in this field talking about complex systems.  See John A. Mikes discussion of “Tectology”; this is placed in its modern cosmological context by M. Alan Kazlev.

More Topics:

Phase changes

Balance; equilibrium; symmetry/breaking symmetry; do systems normally reach (fixed point or dynamic) equilibrium or form symmetry?

Networks with dynamic, non-linear feedback

Complex patterns emerging from simple rules in hierarchically organized system





Estimating trajectories

Dissipative structures

Managing uncertainty –

Per Y. G. Choi (Paradigms and Conventions: Uncertainty, Decision Making and Entrepreneurship) all action presupposes a particular paradigm.  If metaphor is paradigm then it governs beliefs, theoretic propositions, inference, where to put attention…  Decisions under uncertainty require a paradigm, decision-maker searches for a paradigm that seems to explain situation or provide cognitive fit, attempts to apply, if it works then paradigm tentatively accepted, will become sub-optimal over time, when paradigm fails search reinitiated. 

[There seems to be a sensitive domain within which disconfirming results are discarded and current paradigm retained (explanations of explanations given) or an exploration may be initiated for a new paradigm.  Successful management of uncertainty is opening the domain as much as possible to exploration without sacrificing usefulness in existing paradigms.]  Some paradigm is always necessary to provide stability and rationale.  [I think what is being said is that, besides metaphors that are usable paradigms, one needs overarching metaphors to explain and inform everyday paradigms and how cognitive fit might be re-evaluated so they can be changed and replaced – I think these are the complexity metaphors of interest here.]

[Managing uncertainty (McWhirter’s term) may be a search strategy for adaptation in the pro-active sense, “watching for the next wave” (Lissack quotes B. Arthur).  This would certainly be adaptive in the evolutionary sense (vs. the accommodation sense).]

Complex Multi-Party, Multi-Issue Negotiations

Complexity increases with the number of parties negotiating in mediation and the number of issues potentially in dispute.  The entire complex can be considered a system such that a change in one matter produces changes in many or most others.  See Gunnar Sjöstedt, Long Term Facilitation of Multilateral Negotiations, in the proceedings of Première Biennale Internationale de la Négociation, Paris, 11-12 December, 2003; W. Zartman (ed) (1994) International Multinational Negotiation: Approaches to the Management of Complexity, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sjöstedt reviews methods of “managing” complexity that essentially summarize or formularize it.  To the degree that these methods reduce the number of factors, gloss over complex interactions, employ statistical averages, or use simulations or mathematical models that accept multiple inputs and give easily understood outputs, have we better understood complexity?  If these tools let idiosyncratic influences cancel each other out over multiple cases, we lose the ability to understand the individual case.  If they hide the complex operation of multiple factors inside a black box, we don’t know whether we have agreement on how the world works or not.

Metaphor can also be an oversimplification or spurious generalization.  Whether it be summary, formula, model or metaphor, a set of relationships is put forth that is (temporarily) taken as truth and is something to “live by” for a period of time and may be superceded by more grounded understanding as a result of direct experience.

Systems Metaphors

Coleman et. al. discuss systems theory treatment of conflict resolution in several articles (see bibliography).

Martin discusses metaphorical ways that complex processes and “hierarchy” are understood:  A COMPLEX PROCESS is A TOOL; A COMPLEX PROCESS is A TERRITORY; A COMPLEX PROCESS is A FRAMED PICTURE; A COMPLEX PROCESS is A FIGURE EMBEDDED IN A GROUND (or perhaps IN A FRAME IN A GROUND; ORGANIZING PRINCIPLES are TEMPORARY SCAFFOLDING; OVERLOAD PROCESSING is NAVIGATION; SWITCHING BETWEEN HOLISTIC AND DETAILED UNDERSTANDING is MOVING BETWEEN HIGH AND LOW VANTAGE POINTS; LEVELS are A LADDER TO GOD, etc.  He further discusses metaphors of boundaries and flow and also explores methods of deconstructing systems metaphors that have become so conventionalized as to have lost much of their meaning.

Drawing on Kövecses’s (2002:84-91) discussion of multiple metaphors used to describe such complex, abstract concepts as “happiness” Martin elaborates a method of using a thesaurus, history of a concept, and a sort of interview to generate related or constituent metaphors from an over-conventionalized one, asking such questions as, “What goes on in the ill-defined, underlying process?” [this might be related to Gendlin’s “focusing”, whereas Kövecses seems to rely on linguistic analysis to find multiple constituent metaphors or mappings].

Murray and Robson (p. 14) mention the Business Management is Family metaphor as one complexity metaphor, but also offer this Appendix 1 Management Complexity Metaphors

Aspect of Complexity

Aspect of Organizational Analysis





Complex Adaptive System




Fredericks (1998)

Arndt & Bigelow (2000)

Zimmerman (1999)


Network/Virtual Organizations

Kelly (2000)

Tight and Loose Coupling (positive and negative feedback)

Companies eg Microsoft

Marion (1999)


Strategic Logic

Lengnick-Hall & Wolff (1999)

Strange Attractors

Treatment regimes

Zimmerman (1999)

Unpredictability of outcomes

Patients in ICU

Strategic Logic

Dershin (1999)

Lengnick-Hall & Wolff (1999)




Fitness Landscapes

World Wide Web

Strategy Formulation

Biotech and Internet Companies

Watson Akselsen and Pitt (1998)

Anderson (1999)

Lissack (1997)

Network Fitness

Network/Virtual Companies

Regional Health District

Kelly (2000)

Mycek (1999)


Decision making in ‘lean’ production systems

Jenner (1998)

Lengnick Hall & Wolff (1999)

Dissipative Systems

Strategy(NYSE, Toyota)

Behaviour of human systems

Food manufacturer

Entropy and energy of complex system

Hamel (1998)

Mathews (1999)

MacIntosh & MacLean (1999)

Mathews (1999)

Edge of chaos

Culture in Shell

Management education

Regional Health Networking

Pascale (1999)

Aram & Noble (1999)

Mycek (1999)



Vicious Cycle Metaphors

This type of metaphor might also be referred to as a “chain reaction” or “descending spiral”.  It involves oscillation of complimentary forces and a sequence that first one party and then the next is moved out of equilibrium further and further.  The response to each move overshoots what is required just to regain equilibrium and disrupts it further.  This is what Bateson called “complementary schizmogenisis”, or a process that, the more it goes on, the more it amplifies and, if not restrained, becomes unstable, producing a breakdown of some sort (i.e., each party’s behavior provokes the other to more of an extreme in opposition; first introduced in Bateson’s 1935 article 'Cultural Contact and Schismogenesis'; also referenced in a book by Ralph Abraham, 'Chaos, Eros and Gaia').  For example, falling in love, a panic attack, dominance-submission, slippery slope.

Similar, but not the same, is “action-reaction”, “push-pull” or “tit for tat” which may characterize a situation when reactions are not amplified and when schism and breakdown are not necessarily imminent.  “Action-reaction” could, for example, describe the oscillating pendulum of a clock where movement in one direction is more or less equally balanced by movement in the opposite direction – a state of alternating disequilibria that results in dynamic balance and continuous, predictable activity.  In human relations or thought processes this may or may not be desirable.  For example, if the complementary actions have the effect of restraining, limiting adaptability, or diverting from legitimate goals, then people may be locked in each others grip, tangled in a web, tied in a knot, etc.  Images are tangled rope, hands gripping each other at wrists, see-saw, structure of stones or plates such that moving one requires movement of another to keep it from falling down.

Other examples: something you love to hate; competition, domino effect, “show ‘em what it’s like”, reflex action, hard-wired response, “we want to play, too, “if you do that I’ll counter with ___”, “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”, when pushed push back, something taken is grabbed back, regaining a lost position, boat leans one way and you counterbalance,

Some of these images, particularly the see-saw, movement in a boat, and the structure made of stones, suggest that movement must be regulated and measured to keep the system from breakdown.  If one part is moved in an exaggerated way the system can break down.  Action-reaction or tit-for-tat, therefore, could become schismogenic.

What keeps such movement regulated and measured?  Rules, explicit or assumed, and turn-taking often act as restraints.  These are characteristics of games; schismogenisis is prevented while complementary movement is perpetuated.

Rules can be dependent on the state or location one or both parties occupy at a given point in time.  Locations have container aspects (size, boundaries, exits and entries, depth, visibility inward and outward) and the patterns of movement regulated by rules seem to give Locations force as well (probably experienced as an external force pulling, pushing, holding, compressing, stimulating, etc.).

Different sets of rules may define the forces in a single location in a contradictory way, such as when a game is played in the context of a culture that outlaws certain movements that the game permits.  Such nested sets of rules can make it necessary to attend to more than one dynamic equilibrium simultaneously (see more in next section on Metaphor Webs).

Metaphor Webs

"Multiple-interconnected" metaphor (which may be what is referred to as "overlapping") might better be called a metaphoric "web".  I am thinking particularly of causal relations where, for example, the affected entity becomes the agent for another metaphor (or already is the agent of a simultaneously-occurring causal relation), or the possessions brought to the affected entity become the agent for movement.

Even more interesting perhaps are causal relations where (1) an agent moves the affected entity that, from this new location becomes an agent, in turn, affecting the original agent, or (2) there are two results from the same movement, one looping back via one chain, the other via another, each influencing the original agent in different ways or directions, which then acts again.  This creates complexity as would be expected in living systems, but not so easily captured in metaphor of bodily movement and object manipulation, or so it seems.

Certainly we have everyday experience of movement with multiple factors and consequences - balancing, fine-tuning, dealing with energy and fatigue, resisting and using gravity, centrifugal force, traveling in circles, akido-type use of external force (redirecting external force), pushing enough but not so much as to throw off track, changing direction by pushing off of solid objects… 

The richest metaphors may involve movement in such activities as cooking, gardening, procreating -- where each movement has multiple consequences that must be coordinated, organized and balanced in order to get certain results.  For example, putting food into the mouth, not elsewhere (if you want to eat).

Additional notes:

R. D. Laing's "Knots" recounts the binds people get into not realizing the multiple link-ups to the forces they exert (multiple consequences with contradictory meanings).  For example, someone believes his mother loves him because she is good and she is good to love him; (being good entails being bad, so) that if he doubts her love, he violates her goodness and her goodness requires her to straighten him out by punishing him for thinking she doesn't actually love him.

Another important complexity has to do with McWhirter's self-management model (SDMP):  The primary conceptual metaphor most likely would operate at the Performing level.  At higher levels (Managing, Directing), force, movement, manipulation become abstract and Agent and Patient are referenced in terms of categories and classes, not individuals.

Can we have metaphor regarding classes that abstractly move classes?  This seems to be where atmosphere, tendencies, etc. are involved.  But if the categories are radial concepts, then prototypes may be involved to make a good metaphor.

The subtleties of force/movement can be modulated further by the interplay of currents (web of semi-coordinated actions) when, for example, someone says something fairly direct, and adds a tone of skepticism or humor that spins the result.  The source could be a ball bounced to another person with a backspin; moving something into place, but at an angle; combining a move forward with an incline backwards - they don't cancel each other, but the force is definitely qualified (tilted, biased, tentative, exploratory).

Per Watzlawick, et. al, many situations are presented without revealing the "problem with the problem".  This is where the presentation is of a particular issue that may appear basically simple and unified.  For example, someone who had a "friend" living at her house who was getting more and more drunk and wouldn't move out when asked.  The problem seems to be how to make this person respond to a request to leave, how to increase force sufficiently.  The "real" situation reveals crosscurrents that might put a spin on causal relations (she may have a problem with forcing this person out), or might actually change the focus (open a new space that involves sympathy, affection, need for companionship, etc.).

What to Do If You Can’t Detect a Metaphor

Sometimes the language used by clients to express their issues, reasons or concerns seems not to contain the causal relations metaphors discussed in this paper.  This appendix is intended to give help to sort out or unpack what the clients are saying so you might better discover what causal relations metaphors are, in fact, present.

But first of all the reader should understand that I have included in this paper only one type of metaphor – those that conceptualize certain causal relations – and that there are many other types of metaphor not covered here – for example, metaphors of time, mind, morality, fairness, rational choice, etc.  These other types of metaphor will be discussed elsewhere or at another time.  And secondly, the conceptual metaphors of causation presented here, while widely used, do not cover every causal notion you might encounter.

Abstract or Compressed Language

Clients often speak using very abstract terms and compress rather complex actions or movement into passive, conjugal, or nominalized constructions.

Take this example of concealed causal metaphor:  A divorced mother proposes that the child continue to attend a certain school while the father proposes another school with a different philosophy.  The mother says the current school is working well, the child has lots of friends, the teachers are very good, and the parents are involved with their children’s education.  The father argues that the other school has a superior approach to education.  Is there metaphor of causal relations here?   They argue back and forth, trying but failing to understand each other’s essential concerns, and each concluding that the other simply wants his or her way. 

In this example we can detect assertions of causal relations about each school forming their child in certain ways (school is Agent, child is Affected Party), but what is the movement involved?  Are Locations, Possessions, Obstacles involved?  I would say they probably are, but only additional questioning will reveal them.  I would want to ask the mother to see if she has an idea of where she would like her child to end up as a result of going to this school (final location or destination).  Does she see what the intermediate steps (intermediate locations) are along the way?  Or, is the school bringing things to her or to the child (Possessions)?  How does continuation at the same school facilitate the desired movement?  How about having friends?  Somehow the school’s philosophy of involving parents is seen perhaps as a push on parents who, in turn, move their children differently than in other schools.  Can one parent provide this movement for her child even if the parents of classmates aren’t engaged?  Then ask similar questions of the father.

Answers to these kinds of questions test to see if the metaphor of the type described in this paper is operating in these parents’ minds.  My experience says there is a good chance the answer is yes, in which case you can make use of this metaphor, bring in its entailments, extend and refine it.  In this case the structure you are clarifying and extending opens options for the parents to consider in coming to agreement.

Alternatively, the operating metaphor in this example might turn out to be the parent as Agent, moving the child nearer to him/herself into the chosen school, and to have more to do with the parent possessing the child (not having her taken away) more closely or warmly.  The school, in almost any case, is a Container.  Both parents see their chosen school as having significant boundaries within which important things can happen to or with the child.  Are the boundaries formed by the school walls, the distance from other things, the way the teachers behave, or what?  How much of the same desired movement of the child can be effected from outside of the school?  Which children are most “inside” a school, and which are near the outside, susceptible to other influences, etc.?

Time is often collapsed in people’s description of situations.  Quite often we speak of a future outcome in the present tense, not making a distinction among the various points in time in between.  The parents in our example may say that if their child attends a particular school she is deprived of certain advantages (right now), when what they may mean is that the long-term effect will be to deprive her.  By leaving out all the steps in between, the choice of school now is co-located with the outcome of going to that school for years.  The metaphor starts with moving to a single location, but once this structure is revealed it may be extended to include other locations, many of which may represent additional choice points.

Overlapping, Nested, and Layered Metaphor

Multiple, mixed and intertwined metaphor is more common than the simple, clear singular variety.  People might speak, for example, of pushing someone else to get what they want (combination of moving someone else to another location and moving what they want to themselves).  This makes sense, even though it complicates an analysis.

Extended narrative or allegorical metaphors will have an outer story and numerous sub-plots within.  When clients “tell their story” this nesting is typical, if not always well organized.  A therapist or mediator must make choices about which aspects to attend to.  For example, a family may be warm, close, loving yet live in a jungle of wild, bloodthirsty beasts; this could be the Source Domain for understanding a business the workers in which are close, but who must face stiff competition in their market.  I have emphasized the simple, more generic conceptual metaphors that always are the building blocks of nested ones.

Layered metaphor is common also.  Layering occurs when the terms of one metaphor are fully understood only by reference to another one.  An example is pushing for more monetary support (one layer) when money has its own metaphoric meaning (another layer).  I leave discussion of this very interesting arrangement for another day.

Rules, principals, strategies and tactics represent highly structured examples of layered and nested metaphor.  McWhirter (1999) discusses how people create mental models of what they know (and a metaphor is a type of model) which are nested, multi-layered and fractal in nature (e.g., technological procedures nested within methodological processes, in turn nested within epistemological principals).  Rules of behavior and communication are metaphors existing outside of, but strongly influencing, the more obvious metaphor we hear when working with clients.  How these metaphors are built into the structure of our language (as Reddy, 1979/93, describes) and our social structures (made famous by Watzlawick, et. al, 1974) are worthy of careful study.

“What”, “How”, and “Why” in Metaphor – A Minimum of Three Levels

Implicitly or explicitly, metaphor makes distinctions.  It is not the only way we make distinctions in our thoughts, feelings and behavior, but metaphor is particularly powerful in the way it economically employs the complexity of previous experience.

Simple Distinctions

At the simplest level metaphor distinguishes one thing from another.  Such distinctions are likely to be sensory in nature; e.g., “It just stands out,” “I get a funny feeling,” “This one hits me differently.”  What is distinguished has been identified, but neither described very fully nor explained.  Simple performing in terms of such differences may also be indicated; e.g., “I turned left,” “She arrived at the bottom.”

Conceptual Distinctions

Metaphor at this level distinguishes one thing from another by grouping, categorizing, assigning labels; e.g., “That man is a dog,” “She swam through the crowd,” “They are looked up to,” “Outward calm covered inner turmoil.”  Conceptual distinctions give fuller descriptions of how one thing differs from another, and may suggest strategies for how to tell the difference or use the difference.


At this level metaphor encompasses relationships, change and the progress of events over time.  Simple and conceptual distinctions are connected in sequences over time, parallel events, similarities, etc.  Now we can understand not just what and how things are different, but begin also to understand why.  Principals and direction may emerge; e.g., “There was give and take in their negotiations,” “He paid for his actions,” “The method in her madness.”

Additional notes:

Compare with Performing – Strategies – Principals where “Levels” of metaphor is discussed; forms a quasi-fractal model.