How to Become Adept in Applying Metaphor

Paper presented at
Researching And Applying Metaphor IV
Université de Manouba, Tunis, Tunisia
April 6, 2001

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



Metaphor is often deliberately used by social services providers and other professionals.  Included are counselors, psychotherapists and particularly those in my profession – mediators or conciliators of disputes between family members.  I personally know of dozens of cases where a well-chosen metaphor has been crucial in resolving a difficult conflict.  The principal benefits are elucidation of complexities and abstractions and the shifting of viewpoints.

This paper presents a practical application of metaphor research that can teach skilled, flexible use of metaphor in real-life situations.  First the basic structure of metaphor is taught, along with findings in cognitive science that identify metaphor as conceptual and mostly unconscious.  The need to bring the metaphor process into conscious awareness is discussed.  Step by step, key distinctions are taught and practiced to aid this learning.

Then the use of metaphor is linked to the core concerns of the people being taught (in this case conflict resolution specialists or mediators).  Their major process concerns are addressed, which are effective listening, enhancing communications, and expanding options.

The metaphor types chosen as most valuable for these learners are metaphors of spatial relations and bodily movement, and metaphors of cause and effect.  This paper includes the design of exercises to increase skill, precision and flexibility in the application of these metaphors to the practice of mediation.


This paper presents a practical application of current theory and research.  But a person is not likely to learn to use metaphor with spontaneity, flexibility and precision by reading books and monographs.  My goal is to teach people who are not metaphor specialists to become skilled and effective in using metaphor in mediation and other real-life situations.  To do this we need not only a clear understanding of what metaphor is, but also the kind of practice that gives conscious awareness and control over an unconscious process.

First the basic structure of metaphor is taught, along with findings in cognitive science that identify metaphor as conceptual and mostly unconscious.  Then the need to bring the metaphor process into conscious awareness is discussed.  Step by step, key distinctions are taught and practiced to aid this learning.

An essential part of teaching the practical use of metaphor is to link it to the core concerns of the people being taught (in this case conflict resolution specialists or mediators).  Three of their major process concerns are addressed: effective listening, enhancing communications, and expanding options.

The metaphor types chosen as most valuable for these learners are metaphors of spatial relations, bodily movement, and cause and effect.  I have chosen these as more useful and capable of teaching basic metaphor structure, compared with the culturally better known ones, such as metaphors of games, gardening, etc.

This paper includes the design of exercises that increase skill, precision and flexibility in the application of these metaphors to the practice of mediation.

How Practical Use of Metaphor is Taught

I mentioned earlier that, for years, I have had the impression that metaphor was a powerful tool when used skillfully in mediation.  This belief is prevalent among other mediators – who seem very often to regard metaphor with a kind of awe and not very much concrete knowledge.  To begin to give mediators a grasp of what metaphor is I offer some basic information about the structure of metaphor and then to illustrate how mediators currently make use of metaphor.

Metaphor is where one concept, situation or domain is used to describe or understand something else.  The metaphor is something about which you or your listener already knows more, while less is known about the “something else” to which the metaphor is applied.  The effect of the metaphor is to transfer understanding from the better-known domain to the lesser-known.

Orientation Stage

Then I present some examples of published accounts of the use of metaphor in the practice of conflict resolution and mediation:

Diane Yale illustrates use of a gardening metaphor (Walker, 1991).  She deliberately introduces this metaphor to lead clients on a creative, generative track.  Entailments include preparing the ground, planting seeds, caring, weeding, fertilizing, watering, pruning, thinning and seasonal dormancy and sprouting back.  This mediator testifies that such metaphors help set a constructive and beneficial direction for disputants’ thinking.

Bernie Mayer (2000) gives an example of opportunistically adopting ice hockey as a metaphor when he found his Canadian clients using that game’s language in their negotiations over land use policy.  Entailments include a set of known rules of the game, deviations from the rules are "fouls" that are expected to occur from time to time and have penalties (not punishments), regions of the ice and positions that mean specific things, various game strategies and tactics that fans know well.  It helped these clients communicate in a richer, common language (but excludes those who are not fully familiar with the game).

John Haynes (1999) acknowledges the war metaphor that many clients and their lawyers seem automatically to use, and he attempts to shift them to the metaphor of a common journey.  Entailments include steps towards a destination, cooperation in travel, overcoming obstacles, and learning new customs.  But he illustrates how clients retain elements of the war metaphor and fight over proper destinations, getting there first, etc.

These are important contributions that can usefully inspire and guide mediators.  They represent, I believe, what has been the “state of the art” in the practical application of metaphor to the practice of mediation.  (Similar examples can be found for the practice of psychotherapy; see Gordon (1978) and Pearce (1996).)

Metaphor Believed to Be a Fundamental Cognitive Function

Most mediators seem to know that metaphor can be very influential and work quickly and naturally to change thinking.  They realize that it is unobtrusive and operates quickly and holistically, without analysis, explanation or persuasion.  But few know very much about what a metaphor actually is or that, for twenty years or more, it has been a very vigorously studied topic in cognitive science and contributory disciplines.  Therefore, to help them appreciate the scientific and scholarly roots of this work, I present to them information such as the following:

Metaphor has not always been considered to be a fundamental cognitive function.  Many believe metaphor to be secondary to literal meaning (Searle, 1979).  Others distrust metaphor, such as Churchill (1990) who states, "Metaphor is the figurative use of analogy" and should be avoided when attempting to be clear or evaluate the truth of an argument.

But a growing literature in cognitive science demonstrates that metaphor underlies much of our complex thinking, reasoning and language.   This is especially true in abstract domains of the sort that figure prominently in the mediation process, such as emotions (often understood metaphorically as forces moving within), personality (a structure defining what moves what), and interpersonal relations (a set of connections through which influence is exerted).  Certainly metaphor guides our clients’ psychological interpretations of motivation and behavior, and their predictions about future outcomes.

We understand these indirectly experienced and abstract subjects by likening them to something else that we already do understand. Our grasp of such subjects remains at least partly, and often predominantly, in the metaphorical realm. So, when discussing such questions (which often arise in mediation) as "Why does this person feel this way?" "What does he need?" How can we cooperate?" or "Will this work best for the children?" we are implicitly using metaphor.

This is why it is so important that mediators have a conscious awareness of different kinds of metaphor and, hopefully, the skill to make good use of them. Much of the dispute we see as mediators is due to differing metaphoric interpretations, and resolution of such disputes may depend upon clarifying for clients the metaphors they are implicitly using.

Recent evidence shows metaphor is often preferred in everyday thought and speech to literal interpretations (Glucksberg, et. al, 1982). Just during the past twenty years a large body of work in linguistics, psychology and education has accumulated (e.g., Ortony, 1993) to show how metaphor generates understanding of the kind illustrated in the examples above. Furthermore, many cognitive scientists now insist that metaphor plays a key role in structuring all human cognition.

A very comprehensive account of metaphor in the cognitive science literature is given by Lakoff and Johnson (1999). Their extended description shows how metaphor transfers understanding from a source to a target domain. Lakoff and Johnson join others (e.g., Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) who view cognition as a unified, embodied process ranging from attention and perception, through mental processing, to behavior.

Integration With Mediation Principals

Mediators of many schools converge on three highly valued principals of the mediation process – careful listening, questions that promote communications, and expanding options: 

·        A primary activity mediators perform is to listen carefully to what clients want, what they need, what has happened so far, and what they are willing to do or not willing to do.  Mediators pride themselves in hearing more and understanding more than others do.  When a mediator is specifically attuned to the use of metaphor, he or she will be listening for the words that indicate each client’s operating metaphors – the metaphors that clients are already using as they negotiate in a dispute.

·        Mediators will act to facilitate communications among clients so that disputants understand each other better – what is different about their points of view, how they each approach the problem, and why each believes as they do.  A primary mediation tool is to ask clarifying questions of clients.  Mediators emphasizing metaphor will improve client communications that clarify underlying metaphors already operating for each client.  These metaphors are likely to enhance common understanding.

·        Mediation succeeds often because the process helps disputants find options and alternatives that had not occurred to them previously.  Most mediators will promote the search for new options that “enlarge the pie” or expand choices among possible solutions.  Mediators who are skilled with metaphor will be able to extend and use the structure of the disputants’ own metaphors as a guide to new options.

You may note that I am not putting emphasis on what particular metaphors a mediator might introduce.  To date the use of metaphor by mediators and other social service practitioners has dwelled upon “helpful” metaphors, illustrative stories or allegorical guidance.  Instead I choose to emphasize the metaphors already in use by clients, how they can be clarified, and the potential they already possess for resolving disputes.  I propose that we meet the clients in terms of their own metaphors, not impose our metaphors on them.

Key Distinctions

To bring the process of forming and using metaphor – which is primarily an unconscious process – into conscious awareness, we must learn to make conscious distinctions.  The first is the distinction between Target and Source Domains.

Target Domain – Source Domain

Most accounts of metaphor in philosophy, psychology, linguistics and cognitive science introduce the distinction between these two domains.   This establishes them as logically separate and helps the student, researcher or theorist deal with them independently.  But I have found that, because this thinking is a partially unconscious processes, people don’t readily learn this distinction as it applies to everyday examples.  When they are presented with everyday conversation and tasks that are routine in their work they frequently fail to differentiate between what is the Target and what is the Source.  As a result they often fail to recognize that metaphor is present.

People may be so accustomed to processing a metaphor holistically that they treat the Source as part of the Target, the essence or logic of the Target, but not something initially experienced separately.  When these same people are in their role as mediators I want them to be able to listen for this distinction in what a client is saying.  The mediator’s role is to listen well but also to improve communications.  Skill with metaphor enables the mediator to ask questions that help to differentiate between the conflict faced by the client and the logic that may seem part of the conflict but which is, in fact, metaphorically understood from entirely separate experience.

So I take steps to illustrate the separateness of Source and Target Domains graphically and through example.  We later do simple exercises to practice making the distinction in ordinary circumstances.  I adopt terminology that may not fully satisfy the academic specialist because it is more suited to the layperson:

Metaphor organizes the unknown (what is called the Target Domain) in terms of the known (the Source Domain).  One concept, situation or domain is used metaphorically to describe or understand the contents, scope, interactions and logic of something else.  So, if someone said, "He sniffed out the latest gossip," or, “I poked around the cupboard for something to eat”, 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.

The next step is to amplify the notion of transfer between Source and Target.  I have found the following diagram (Figure 1) and explanation to be particularly helpful:

Metaphor transfers understanding from the better-known "Source" to the lesser-known "Target".  Although not noticed before the metaphor is active (and the Source Domain "open"), other factors, objects, actions, and relationships from the Source Domain will be Text Box: Figure 1transferred to the Target.

Here is one way this may work.  A person notices a pattern in the current situation (Target Domain), depicted in the diagram as the triangle with knobbed angles, which resembles a pattern remembered from another, better-understood experience (the Source Domain).  We might say at that point that a "mental space" has been opened as attention focuses on the Source Domain.

Once the Source Domain is "opened", more detail or other objects, patterns, relationships, logic, etc., are noticed which are part of the Source Domain, depicted in the diagram as the colored shapes.  If they fit the Target Domain, this knowledge is transferred from the Source to the Target Domain.

If the individual does this transfer outside of conscious awareness, he or she may regard the transferred knowledge as being "true" of the Target Domain.  If the transfer is made with some conscious awareness, the knowledge may be regarded as one hunch, idea or hypothesis among many.


Having given this explanation it is then time to introduce an exercise that encourages mediators to begin to learn this distinction with greater ease. 

Let me say a word about the nature of the exercises I use.  I structure the exercises to be experiential.  My goal is to put people in the midst of the tension created when something habitually experienced as merged – in this case the Target and Source Domains – begins to differentiate.  Then they will ask themselves questions such as, “What is the difference?  How can I tell the difference?”  That is sufficient at this point in the learning process.  We are not yet trying to apply ourselves to a real mediation task.  Because we want only to bring this distinction into conscious awareness, the initial exercises are quite simple.  This way the learner can build a good foundation for precision in the practical use of metaphor.  I believe that such precision is best developed not by memorizing metaphoric examples, but by grasping general metaphor structure and then looking for signs of that structure in what clients present.

The first of a series of simple exercises is introduced.  Here are examples: 

Identify the Target Domain and the Source Domain in each of the following:

If you do it that way, what seeds will you be planting for the future?

You entered the crease and I’m calling a foul.

Let’s finish with this divorce and get on with our lives.

Uncovering The Client’s or Disputant’s “Operating Metaphor”

Clients focus on problems or disputes as a Target Domain.  To detect metaphor operating in a client’s thinking a mediator must also look there.  When checking for the existence of metaphor in something said, we look first for figurative use of language.  Just this instruction alone has helped considerably in sensitizing mediators to the presence of metaphor when it wasn't at first evident.  Eva Kittay’s (1987) semantic theory of metaphor offers additional help.  To teach people to do this I start with the following explanation and a graphic illustration (Figure 2):

Look for incongruence or "rule-breaking" in the use of language given the context of the Target Domain.  What is the type of rule breaking that produces metaphor?  And how can we learn to identify it consciously?  Again we must devise a practical form.  Practitioners wishing to apply metaphor skillfully must become sensitized to the incongruity and rule-breaking when it occurs spontaneously in spoken utterances. 

The Target Domain is that which is being focused on now.  What is of concern is within this domain -- the situation, problem, topic or dispute you face now.

Metaphor, when it is present, is at first likely to seem well integrated into Text Box: Figure 2the context of the Target.  Everything may seem to fit together coherently.  At first you may not detect any metaphor operating. 

To find out if metaphor is present, look for incongruity, figurative use of language, oddness, strangeness, unavailable or inappropriate meaning, or "rule-breaking" given the context of the Target Domain -- something that requires you to bring in additional context or experience to make full sense of the Target.

In the picture shown, you may consider the context (made up of the hammock, the garden, etc) normally to suggest the presence of a person within it -- in which case the dog is incongruous.  Or, you may consider the dog to form the context -- in which case its occupancy of a hammock is incongruous.

To be sure, try substituting something congruent (e.g., a person) for the dog.  Would this change the meaning or subtract from it?

Incongruence is how you detect the metaphor.  It can be said to "open" a Source Domain.


Again the exercises are simple and designed to promote sensing the distinction:

Pick out the words or phrases in each sentence below that are being used figuratively or that, if taken literally, produce incongruity, strangeness or added meaning from another context.  (Such words indicate that the Target is understood metaphorically in terms of another context.)

Mediation helps disputants reach a mutual decision.

There were underlying tensions that escalated into polarized conflict.

He made the decision, but will he follow through?

Just when I was getting to the point, he cut me off.

I gave (handed) her everything she wanted.

He has a certain set of beliefs.

They rediscovered their passion for ice cream.

Further reflection can help one learn how to isolate the Target Domain. 

a.                   Remove the incongruous word(s) or substitute other words that are not incongruous, odd or rule-breaking; explore what meanings are still possible.

b.                  Discuss the context of the Target Domain as it exists without incongruous words; what the context is that makes certain words odd or rule-breaking.

Exploring the Source Domain

As already mentioned, mediators such as Haynes and Yale have chosen such prosaic metaphors as gardening or a journey because they believe these are particularly helpful Source Domains in conflict resolution.  These choices have much to recommend them.  But, while widely experienced, they are by no means universal.  Furthermore, they can’t be adapted as flexibly as we might like.

I prefer instead to follow Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) account of Primary Conceptual Metaphor.  This sharpens our focus onto metaphors of common bodily movement patterns, movement in space and with constraints (including obstacles and gravity), and handling or manipulating objects.  The rules, prescriptions and prohibitions are those of our own bodies.  Ordinary language is full of allusion to these patterns.  In training mediators to use this type of metaphor I offer this:

A hand can move in certain ways and not in others, the fingers can work together or independently, certain sequences are well learned, such as grasping and releasing (Handling), pushing and pulling (Moving), opening and closing (Containing). Orientations such as above, below, behind, in front of, being inside or outside -- are all learned through bodily experience.  Movement of our own bodies through space, from one location to another, slowly or fast, loaded down and fatigued versus light and energetic - all of this is articulated in our experience. 

When bodily movement is the Source Domain of a metaphor, clients have access to the full range of its built-in logic that can be generalized and transferred to a Target Domain.  Humans know a lot about the movement of their bodies - their arms, legs, their hands, and their body as a whole, moving in space.  This makes it an excellent Source Domain.

Therefore the next distinction to make (in furthering our goal of bringing the operation of metaphor more into conscious awareness) is to notice which metaphors use bodily movement or object manipulation as the Source Domain.  For example,

we arrived at a decision (yes);

he is a skunk (no);

she dumped him for another man (yes);

his enthusiasm was infectious (probably not).

In English particularly, and especially when verbs are converted to nouns or the passive voice is used, action of all kinds is then expressed in very compact form.  This can make it more difficult to understand who or what is the actor, what is acted upon and how.  For example,

confusion reigned;

he over generalized from partial information;

she was inclined to agree;

any additional comments?

To help unpack concentrated forms of expression and provide a tentative map of possibilities, Figure 3 depicts the Source Domain of bodily movement and object manipulation in terms of seven clusters of metaphors.  These clusters were originally inspired by themes and groupings in Carlton (1995) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999).  They are presented without any claim to empirical validity nor completeness, but they cover a wide and useful range.  The clusters are highly interrelated – a veritable web of associated metaphors -- but the various clusters offer valuable differentiation as well.  The exercises that follow show how the seven clusters help clarify and extend metaphors:

Locating/Containing – Being in places, states and spaces

Structuring – Dividing parts and whole, fitting, connecting, orientating

Handling/Manipulating – Receiving, sending, shaping, sizing

Moving/Locomotion – Moving on a path, causing, images passing, sequencing

Balancing – Distributing, centering, leaning, oscillating

Seeing – Tracking, lighting, focusing, distancing

Procreating – Germinating, giving birth


The metaphor clusters that I have come up with, along with other documentation, can be found on my website (  But it is not necessary to use these particular clusters.  Anyone can simply refer to the human body and begin to map the variety of ways that it moves in its environment.  From that, one can weave one’s own web of differentiated yet interrelated bodily movement metaphors.

Figure 3


Exercises in Conscious Awareness

Here is one type of exercise to illustrate and practice clarifying, communicating and extending operating metaphors.  By "extending" we mean including additional aspects of the same metaphor or other metaphor clusters related naturally to those that are initially identified.  (They all are related because they work together in the normal course of bodily movement and almost always have a corresponding function in whatever the Target Domain may be.)  These natural extensions in the Source Domain can increase options in the Target Domain.

Case Example:  Father depends on Mother to care for their children and to contribute support.  He wants Mother to have a life insurance policy with a large death benefit.  He says it will make him feel more comfortable to know that, if she dies, he will be able to afford the help he will need to care for their children.  She is opposed to this saying that would make her more valuable dead than alive. 

Take Father’s operating metaphor first, hypothesizing that he is in an emotional state of mind; go to the Locating/Containing cluster.

This cluster helps us hypothesize metaphorically that an emotional state is a location in space.   It is understood metaphorically as a distinct place that may be enclosed and hard to move from, but may be a known distance from other places (states). 

Form questions to be asked of the disputant to test and refine hypotheses; our goal now is to experience this metaphor in terms of the Source Domain only (not referring back to the Target Domain for the purposes of this exercise), so form questions using Source Domain terminology only.

Questions that come to mind are, “What can you see from there?  And, “While in that place are you moving (towards what? falling, sliding?) or stationary?” 

Express the operating metaphor using Source terminology.  An additional experiential component would be to tell a story using Source Domain language; while doing so you may link to other clusters that seem relevant.  For example, “This father knows he is in an uncomfortable place; what is the place actually like (metaphorically)?  What moves is he making to get out of it?  He could jump, call for help, grasp onto something.”

From the metaphor cluster in which the operating metaphor has been found, note other related or relevant metaphoric understandings and links to other clusters. 

Going to another cluster (e.g., Balancing) may suggest other questions, such as “Do you feel off balance?”, “What is needed to get your feet under you?” 

Form hypotheses about extending the operating metaphor; reiterate as needed (ask questions, listen to the other person’s answers, further extend whatever metaphor you hear being expressed).

Exercises in Practical Application

The following exercises begin to integrate all of the previous distinctions and illustrate how they can be applied in working with mediation clients or disputants.  This means learning how to move easily back and forth between Target and Source Domains.  Note that the integration covers not only how the previous distinctions work together, but also how they relate to the three highly valued principals of the mediation process – careful listening, questions that promote communications, and expanding options.  Here are the steps of this exercise: 

Decide which disputant’s metaphor to focus on first.

Listen for and identify the language, movement or action in the Target Domain that may indicate a metaphor.

The Mom spoke about her life since she and her husband separated.  Her life was at home with the children.  She took each day is it came.  It was hard to see what the future would be like.

Use the Bodily Movement metaphor clusters to hypothesize about one or more operating metaphors.

Form questions to be asked of the disputant to test and refine hypotheses.

Express and communicate the operating metaphor:  Transfer metaphor patterns, logic and intelligence to the Target.

From the metaphor cluster in which the operating metaphor has been found, note other related or relevant metaphoric understandings and links to other clusters.  Form hypotheses about extending the operating metaphor; reiterate these steps as needed.

Here is another example to which the same steps can be applied:

The Father said they had been separated for two years and it was time to get the divorce settled and get on with their lives.

Additional Metaphor Structure: Metaphors of Causation

Many Primary Conceptual Metaphors have elements of cause and effect.  Often these are metaphors I have put in the cluster called Moving/Locomotion.  In attempting to identify operating metaphors, when we find cause and effect elements present, we can clarify and extend these metaphors by bringing them into conscious awareness.  In training mediators I present the following:

Certain metaphors are effective in transferring understanding about causal relations - how one event may cause another.  Cause and effect questions arise frequently in the course of mediation.  Lakoff and Johnson (1999) have studied these metaphors, and the metaphor structure presented here is found across cultures and language groups.

Prototypical causation is the application of physical force by human agency resulting in motion or change of some sort.  In other words, causation is metaphorically understood to be force, particularly force wielded by humans that has effect.

The core element of the complex metaphor structure of causation is object manipulation by an Agent and involves these terms:  A Cause, the Agent originating the cause, an Effect or effects, and the Affected Entity (which is moved or has something moved to it or away from it).

Additional Metaphor Structure: The Event Sequence

What constitutes a “complete metaphor”?  Often we hear fragments that suggest the existence of an operating metaphor of causation, but what might be the whole metaphor?  The notion of the Event Structure is helpful here:

Lakoff and Johnson (1999) discuss causation from a theory based empirically on embodied cognition where force actually intervenes in events.  For them, event structure is a homologue of thought-behavior and cause is only understood as human movement that, by definition, involves force of some greater or lesser magnitude.

Figure 4 illustrates the correspondence between the event sequence (left column), a simple, literal bodily act (middle column), and a figuratively described act (right column).  Note the sequence of each.



Literal Bodily Act

Figurative Act

Initial State

Previous activity stopped



Turn towards cup

Turn to the person, say something

End Startup


Wait for response

Start Main Process

Reach for cup

Name, describe, point to object


Spill, lose grip... ?

Other person seems not to follow?


Moving towards mouth?

Keep on talking, gesturing?

Resultant State

Cup arrives at lips

Person's attention now on object.

Figure 4

We may not easily find all the steps of the metaphoric (figurative) sequence.  But on closer examination probably all of the steps exist in the experience that underlies a client’s operating metaphor.  Much as entailments are found by implication in simple metaphors, this sort of figurative use of language implies that each step in the sequence exists, at least in the unconscious.  Some research suggests that they do exist in some (probably unconscious) form; this opens obvious areas for clarification and extension of a client’s operating metaphor.

For example, Mom says, "I can't get out of the house..."  Causation is inherent in this statement – that something is causing her not to get out of the house -- and this indicates that the Startup or Main Process has been interrupted.  To clarify, communicate and extend we would want to explore the step just preceding what the client explicitly describes (i.e., before Startup, was there an Initial State - stopping the previous sequence, or for Main Process was there a Startup?).  By keeping the sequence in mind, questions can be formed to help clarify and communicate the client's actual experience.  This also suggests natural extensions that increase options.


The emphasis here has been to teach, using practice exercises of an experiential nature, how consciously to make cognitive distinctions that reveal the mostly unconscious metaphor structure in people’s thinking.  I used conflict resolution mediators as examples and made metaphor relevant to three basic principals in the practice of mediation – listening, clarifying and communicating, and expanding options and alternatives for clients.  This work is inspired and guided by recent work in psychology, linguistics and cognitive science.


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