Workshop Title: The Use of Metaphors in Mediation

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

We all know of cases where a well-chosen metaphor has been key to resolving a conflict. But where do these metaphors come from and how can we become skilled at using them?

This paper describes the basis for the workshop on the Use of Metaphors in Mediation. Besides summarizing the workshop presentation it is intended to give additional depth on the theory of metaphor and to offer exercises (see the Appendices) that you can do to gain greater facility when working with mediation clients and others, including yourself.


First I will explain why I believe a certain kind of metaphor is particularly prevalent and useful. It is termed "primary conceptual metaphor" and I emphasize this kind of metaphor here, particularly metaphors of cause and effect.

Then I will describe carefully how you can learn to identify and work with this kind of metaphor. Because it often operates outside of conscious awareness, this learning takes a certain amount of effort.

I will illustrate how this metaphor is already operating to guide us every day in our practice of mediation. From this you may not only gain some insight into how you now do mediation, learn about options for enhancing mediation, but also have a ready-at-hand arena within which to explore metaphor, and thereby gain skill for application with clients.

Finally I will describe how this metaphor operates implicitly in what clients present to us. This knowledge can be used to help them expand or shift the metaphors they use so as to increase possibilities for resolution of conflict.

Metaphors of Cause and Effect

I have chosen here to focus on metaphors of cause and effect because of my personal experience. My mediation practice deals primarily with family disputes and I find that a great many of the disagreements between clients are fundamentally about cause and effect. For example, clients disagree about what has caused a family member’s misbehavior and what will prevent recurrence, how various factors contribute to a child’s development or doing well in school, or why the results will be better if one family member makes a certain decision instead of another.

The causal links in question are difficult to know objectively and the disputes hinge on subjective estimates or interpretations of what has caused or will cause what. Such subjective estimates or interpretations depend at least partly upon the individual client’s use of metaphor to understand how things work, and very often such metaphors operate unconsciously.

So the mediator can make immediate progress by helping clients bring their metaphoric thinking into the open. Clarifying implicit metaphors assists clients in explaining what they mean and, as we shall see later, the revealed structure of a metaphor automatically offers new options and alternatives. Just about every thought or discussion relies on primary conceptual metaphor to express meaning. As later examples show, the language does not have to 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 (presented below) shows how causal relations (as one essential aspect of most discussions in mediation) depend on nothing more unusual than 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 what causes what. In this way we can identify the speaker’s explanation for what has happened in the past or predictions for the future.

It is not just the clients who depend upon primary conceptual metaphor. If you consider how we practice mediation and how various trainers and authors around the world describe the process, you will find a 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. I will give examples of this in a later section of this paper, but first we must clarify our definition and understanding of metaphor.

What is a 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 the understanding from the better-known "source" to the lesser-known "target". Another way to say this is that the "source" becomes a mental model used to understand the "target". Here are some examples:

Metaphor Example

Identify Source and Target Domains

Partial-Phrase Metaphors: Colorful Images. A metaphor can be simple such as "He is really a teddy bear" or "She swam through the crowd." Placing a well-chosen figurative form as the subject or predicate of a phrase does this. Traits, states or qualities of a person, thing or action are thus attributed.

In the first example "He" is the target, and is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source "teddy bear".

In the second example "She" is the target and her movement is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source "swam".

Whole-Phrase Metaphors: Thematic Phrases. More interesting are phrases or descriptions such as "He pursued his career by responding to each new event with an opinion or a proposal that gave him the edge." The entire phrase forms the metaphor (not just the subject or predicate). Although this example lacks colorful images, a quasi-military or sporting theme emerges which transfers understanding of how this person operates.

The target is "his career", which is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source, which is something "pursued", involves "opinion or proposal" (implying action, assurance, etc.), and possessing "the edge" (leading, out in front, sharp).

Whole-Phrase Metaphors: Analogisms. "Regarding the national debt, I believe we should fix the roof while the sun is shining." This is another example of whole-phrase metaphor. In this example an analogy containing its own logic becomes available as the source and, if it fits the target alluded to, understanding is transferred including what behavior is recommended, the timing and some possible causal relations. It also includes colorful images that capture the listener’s attention and convey qualities.

The target is "the national debt". This is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source – a "roof" in need of repair.

Extended Metaphors: Narratives and Allegories. For a patient torn between her "wild side" and a strong sense of responsibility, a therapist put together a story of two sisters, one very adventure-some and the other a homebody who enjoyed cooking and taking care of her family. This narrative told about the sisters’ growing up and encountering various characters and situations that helped them harmonize their lives together. Such stories, allegories or fables can be multi-faceted, cover the unfolding of events over time, cycles of events, external interventions, and the subtle interplay of forces that permit choices and diverse outcomes. When skillfully constructed to suit the presenting problem, they can lead to multiple shifts in thought and behavior.

The target is the patient who has an internal conflict. The target is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source that is the life of two sisters. Within this metaphor are additional metaphors.

Primary Conceptual Metaphors Based on Sensory Motor Experience. The structure of these intriguing metaphors is almost hidden in their very naturalness, such as "She went into the subject at great depth, revealing a solid understanding." This example sounds literal and uses everyday language making this kind of metaphor easy to overlook. But it may be all the more powerful by transferring such structure as the following: Subjects are spaces which have surfaces and depths, discussion travels within such spaces and brings what is inside out into the open, and understanding in this case is a well-built, physical construction.

The target is "the subject". The source from which the target is conceptualized metaphorically is bodily experience where "she went into" something to a "great depth", "revealing" (something unseen) to be "solid" and standing under (physically supporting).

It is the kind of metaphor shown in this last example – the primary conceptual metaphor – that I believe is the most fundamental and easiest to access, although it may be unfamiliar to many people. It is unfamiliar because it usually operates outside of conscious awareness. Also it is unfamiliar because we have come to think of metaphor as a kind of secret language used by the skilled practitioner – figurative word play that may require special know-how to understand.

I believe conceptual metaphor is actually much more fundamental. Perhaps it operates outside of conscious awareness most of the time not because it is esoteric, but because it is actually our inner mental metabolism. If this is true, it can certainly be a misunderstood source of conflict.

Primary Conceptual Metaphors of Cause and Effect

For this paper I am focusing on certain metaphors that are effective in transferring understanding about causal relations – how one event may cause another – because cause and effect questions arise so frequently in the course of mediation. Cognitive scientists have studied these metaphors extensively, and the metaphor structure presented here is found across cultures and language groups (see Appendix 1 for further detail).

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.

Recall that the "source" of a metaphor is the domain you know a lot about, understanding of which will be transferred to the "target", or the domain you know less about. Humans know a lot about the movement of their bodies, which makes it an excellent source domain for us. It has logic as extensive (and as limited) as is each person’s bodily movement and behavior, plus what is communicated socially and culturally through language and the senses.

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).

Many variations are found for each of these terms, each coloring the causal events. The terms and their various forms metaphorically entail additional meaning, such as the Locations to or from which things are moved, Containers, and Obstacles to movement. Here are some examples:

A Cause is conceptualized metaphorically as a force, involving movement (e.g., He was moved by the story; he moved ahead in class; what she said forced a showdown).

An Agent originates a cause and can be conceptualized metaphorically as a human or something able to apply force much as a human would (e.g., he brought it to a head; she pushed her plan; the attorney’s comments sent a chill; his forecast projected prosperity for another year; can you give us a chance? his action takes away from his words).

An Effect is a change of state of the Affected Entity and is conceptualized metaphorically as a movement of the Affected Entity to another Location or into or out of a bounded region (e.g., what would motivate him to cooperate? I think the award give him a lift).

Agents, Affected Entities, Locations and Possessions are often conceptualized metaphorically as Containers (bounded two- or three-dimensional spaces); containers have insides and outsides, may be deep, shallow, spacious, restricted, etc. (e.g., single parenting took a lot out of him; she searched her memory; that crosses the line of acceptability).

Identifying the Metaphors of Cause and Effect That Clients Are Using

Because metaphor operates mostly outside of conscious awareness, and because we have come to think of metaphor as somewhat esoteric and often inaccessible, how can we learn to identify it in normal conversation? The goal, of course, is to be able to do this naturally and easily. But we start learning how to do it by following certain steps, which I present below.

Clients talk about causal relations in simple terms such as force, movement, boundaries and changes in location. My approach is simply to look for such references in what they say. From this I begin to understand the speaker’s mental model of what causes what. This helps me identify the speaker’s explanation for what has happened in the past or predictions for the future.

As I gather this information about force, movement, boundaries and changes in location, etc., usually I find myself tripping over suggestions of how the human body moves, applies force, or manipulates things. In other words, I can see the likeness between what the client is talking about (target domain) and how the human body moves in its environment (source domain). This brings the client’s operating metaphor into conscious awareness.

Here are steps to follow to bring metaphor into conscious awareness (you can learn these steps slowly and carefully at first, and then they will begin to operate more rapidly and automatically):

1. Reduce the statement of the dispute or issue to a brief form: state as concisely as possible what has happened, what is the concern, what is not working, what needs to be changed.

2. Listen for words invoking ideas of force (e.g., weak or strong), exerted by someone or something, that produce motion, movement, change of distance, travel, locating or repositioning. See if you can tell on what person or thing the force has been exerted or which has been moved in some way (there may be a chain of effects where A moves B which moves C, etc.). Identify if objects or possessions are moving toward or away from someone. Look for movement of people or things to named locations and if any location seems to be a destination. Are there obstacles? Finally, note container attributes (e.g., boundaries, inside, outside, depth, size, etc.).

3. Using definitions as given above, fill in the table (use option columns to identify multiple metaphors or alternate interpretations); be sure to find all three of the items with a spade (♠), and at least one of the three with a diamond (◊):


1st Option

2nd option

3rd Option


♠ Agent


♠ Force, Movement


♠ Affected Entity


◊ Locations


◊ Possessions


◊ Obstacles




4. Ask questions to flesh out and clarify your entries in the table:

a. To clarify the Agent: Who (what) is pushing, pulling, bringing, sending, driving, thrusting, projecting, giving or taking, turning, making, etc.? (Tip: If you can’t easily identify the Agent, take a point of view or perspective, such as the client’s, your own, or that of someone else in the situation).

b. To clarify the Affected Entity or party: Who or what is (1) moved or (2) has things, objects or possessions moved to it or away from it (given or taken away)?

c. To clarify the force/movement: The nature of the force or movement is often hidden in verbs of the passive voice, the verb "to be", in abstract verbs or in nominalizations (verbs turned into nouns). Metaphor emerges more clearly when we know how the force or movement occurs. Here are some distinctions of force and movement to explore:


Category of Causal Force/Movement

Concrete Terms

Degree of forcing

Slow-fast; weak-strong


Where, when


Up-down; in-out; left-right; over-under; in front of - in back of; push-pull


Lean; level; balance, hang; slant, tip, tilt, twist, slide, slip


Sweep, throw, hit, bat, spit, loosen, let go


Touch, hold, tighten, grasp, open it, open to it, surround, gather, cradle


Add-remove; attach-cut off


Squeeze, rub, bend, sculpt


Line up-spread around; point to-screen off; move together-move apart; include-exclude


Once, several instances, continuing over time


Rub up against, rub off on, make into, turn into, replace, transfer


Sprout-crush, spawn, give rise to-suppress, give birth to-abort

d. Find out about Locations: Is he/she/it (Affected Entity or party) moved or changed into a new spot? A different state? A point of view or vantage point? Is he/she/it now separated or distinguished from something or someone else?

e. Are Possessions involved (things or objects which can be brought to, given to, carried away, taken away from the Affected Entity)?

f. To explore Obstacles or difficulties: What is slowing, burdening or stopping? Is something in the way?

g. To explore Container aspects: How is the line drawn between ___ and ___? What’s in that…? Does she have it in her? Has he looked into…? Are you close to…? Is it contained by or within …? (A Container is sometimes like a conduit.) Is something or someone channeling or being channeled, conveying or being conveyed, passing or being passed through?

5. As you work with the above questions and responses, try to see how it all may come together as a system – Agent moving the Affected Entity to a different Location, or moving Possessions to or from the Affected Entity, with or without Obstacles, and note how Container aspects figure in. Remember that bodily movement (particularly object manipulation) is the principal source domain.

6. Note any images, parallels or ideas that come to mind and that correspond to what you learned about the client’s operating metaphor up to this point. For example, after working with the above concepts, a good analogy may come to mind. This may raise additional questions about the situation that you can ask to verify aptness or to revise your model.

We will consider an illustrative example at the end of the next section.

How to Extend Operating Metaphors

So far we have described ways to discover metaphors in use by clients and to clarify and flesh them out. Having done that and having reflected on the ideas, images and other examples of agency, movement, etc. which come to our own minds, numerous helpful or resourceful alternatives may have occurred to us. In other words, discovering the operating metaphors gives us models of each client’s thinking so we can meet them more on their own terms. Also such models are likely to suggest multiple alternatives for discussion and negotiation that were not so evident before. Let us now explore how to extend or shift the metaphor for a more successful mediation.

Because today we are focusing on metaphors about causation, note that these metaphors help reveal how clients explain causes historically and predict future events. With regard to future events, the core of causation in the metaphoric account – agency – not only helps predict effects from known causes, but also facilitates choice of causal factors and manipulation of such aspects as their force and direction to produce particular effects.

I want to emphasize not only what causes produce what effects, but also how the causes work. Knowing more about "how" allows a client to reason with more precision about how an agent, needing to influence future events, might get fuller access to a range of causal possibilities with which to reason forward in time. The metaphoric account provides useful structure for this and invites consideration of "what if" conditions. Because bodily movement is the source of the metaphor, clients have access to the full range of its causal logic and can apply it to the target domain of interest. Here is the step (added to those presented above) that we as mediators can take to assist in this process:

7. Apply one or more natural extensions to extend the metaphor. Today we are focusing on bodily movement as the source. Suggesting alternatives in terms of these sources allows our interventions to adjust causes to produce desired effects.

The example below integrates the "identifying" process discussed above with the "extending" process just described.

Example: A mother and father, divorced three years and having joint custody of one child, come to mediation to resolve child support, parenting time and decision responsibility issues.

The mother, exasperated with the ongoing behavior of her ex-husband, complains that he pays too little child support and is erratic in following their parenting schedule. She has, up until now, refused to discuss these matters with him and has had her lawyer file a motion in court to increase child support, reduce the father’s parenting time, and to give the mother all decision-making authority for their child in the future.

The father expresses anger and frustration that his ex-wife exaggerates isolated incidents and is trying to "take his child away" from him. She recites quite a bit of evidence supporting her claims. The father is hurt and indignant. He disputes the evidence, describes how he meets his obligations and is a good parent, and that she is more often the one at fault.



Identifying Operating Metaphors

Comments and Extending or Perhaps Shifting the Metaphors

We have a choice to look for the metaphor or metaphors being used by the father, by the mother, or by someone observing the couple and their situation. I most often choose not to analyze the metaphor of the outside observer (although this is popular among mediators who use metaphor – e.g., depicting the parents as two children fighting over rules of a game, dancers following each other’s lead, etc.) because I would rather find metaphors with a higher likelihood of fitting the clients’ current thinking.

Many practitioners would find ways simply to introduce metaphoric structures that will hopefully point clients in a more productive direction, matching the metaphor introduced to certain aspects of the client situation. That approach depends on the clients’ unconscious acceptance of the metaphor introduced by the mediator. I prefer instead to ascertain the metaphors already operating (or using a structure compatible with ongoing thinking), and to talk with clients using terms at the conscious level of awareness, and then to extend or shift that metaphor in exploring mutual solutions.

For this example, let us look at what primary conceptual metaphor (of causal relations) appears to be operating for the father in his current thinking about the situation so far. The mother appears to be the Agent in making her complaint and bringing the court action.

At this point I wouldn’t attempt to extend the metaphor or shift it because I want to find out if it fits the father’s thinking. Just gather information.

The father expresses that, as the Affected party, he is pushed into a constrained position or location. Consider this location to be a container setting limits on what he can do. We may question whether he is in the container yet, or simply moved near to it by the mother’s threat of court action. We will learn more about the container from his description of how he feels, what he can or must do or not do, how deeply into it he is or might become, and how readily he can enter or leave it.

To leave opportunity for extension and shift, the father might be encouraged if I emphasize his relative position. Is he already driven into a tight corner, or has it merely come into view and he needs to take note? Are the feelings he reports coming from being contained, or being in a strange place? What are real versus imagined limits of the position? What freedom does he actually have to enter or leave? What can he take with him and what leave behind?

The father also faces the obstacle of mother’s refusal to discuss the matter.

Obstacles are different from locations or containers. Obstacles might be climbed over, moved away, etc.

Next let us look at the mother’s possible metaphor. Evidently she had previously been moved into an uncomfortable position by things the father had done in the past as they attempted to co-parent their child. Her metaphor could be shaped in part by this experience, as she probably had been in a location from which parental cooperation had been easier and then found herself in a location, perhaps having container attributes, distant or blocked off from cooperation. Questioning would reveal if she moved herself to this new location or felt pushed into it by the father, or by some new idea or reasoning.

Asking questions of the mother that help flesh out the metaphor will be different from simply asking for her to give an historical account. With metaphor-related questions I find it easier to prevent a focus on past events and keep attention on the present location, its attributes and possibilities.

Note how important it is to find out who is the Agent. If she considers the Father as the Agent, this could imply blame of the Father for what has happened. If, on the other hand, she considers a plan or a reason to be Agent, this is quite different.

Another metaphor that could be operating for Father is that the mother has taken away from him an important "Possession", the child. We would ask questions to see if this is a distinct conceptual metaphor for either client. He may not be using this one, but instead thinking mostly about the constraints of his new position and the actions he can make. (Note that the "taking away of possessions" metaphor puts the father in a passive or "background" position, with other action in the foreground.)

Sometimes clients have two quite different metaphors operating on the same material. They may speak at one moment based on a metaphor having Possessions ("my child taken from me"), and at the next moment based on Locations ("I’m in a one-down position"). Asking clarifying questions often helps the client sort out what he actually believes to be true. This, in turn, enables a clearer focus and a more successful search for options.


Metaphors Used by Mediators As They Practice Mediation

Now we turn from client metaphor to metaphor operating in the minds of mediators as they practice their preferred form of the mediation process. As you consider with me the metaphors implicit in your own practice of mediation you will be developing general skills in the use of metaphor that you can also apply with clients.

Mediators around the world name a huge variety of values, principals, and approaches that they believe form the basis for the practice of mediation. I will not try to survey them here. Instead, I will offer several which guide the practice of mediation where I live and work in the American state of Colorado.

When I attended my first mediation training almost ten years ago I learned a series of steps a mediator can follow to ascertain clients’ underlying needs related to a dispute and to facilitate a mutual solution. This can be called a sequential, needs-based, facilitative approach to mediation (Antes et. al., 1999; Moore, 1986; Riskin, 1994). It is a very basic approach to mediation taught now in many places around the world – and I bring it in here not to argue for its strengths or weaknesses – but to illustrate how primary conceptual metaphor operates to guide the practice of mediation. You will see that use of metaphor is not necessarily an exotic enhancement for the more advanced and sophisticated mediator, but an essential tool already in the hands of even the most inexperienced practitioner.

According to the basic mediator training I received, here are three early steps for the needs-based, facilitative mediator to follow:

1. Listen actively to what the clients say and pick out their issues; set the agenda for mediation.

2. Identify the needs (separating them from more general issues or specific client solutions or positions) that must be met for a solution to be satisfactory.

3. Generate multiple options that may satisfy one or more of the needs (while postponing assessment or evaluation of the options).

Let us take the first of the above: "Listen actively to what the clients say and pick out their issues; set the agenda for mediation."

The language used tells the mediator (Agent) to become active – in motion, we might say – and to take hold of issues (Possessions), as though they are things or objects, and then to put them somewhere, namely in the "agenda for mediation" (Affected Entity). So the mediator at first acts upon him or herself to move about within and among the things said by clients, interact with these things – perhaps touch and handle them – to find out if they are, or could be easily shaped into, a particular form called "issues". Then the issues are put into a special place or container – the agenda. The agenda is the common workspace of the mediation session. As were many of you, I was taught to write the agenda on a writing board or tablet that everyone can see and use. This writing space continues throughout the mediation to be the place to put everything important and useful and from which solutions arise. Notice that the mediator gives Possessions (issues) found in the client conversation to the common "agenda" container. The mediator applies a certain force first to him or herself to be active, then on the "issues", to move them to a specific location.

Knowing, as we do now, about aspects of primary conceptual metaphor we begin to re-experience the sensory motor aspects of what is going on here. I immediately find myself thinking about how I might move among things, reach out and take them to where I can feel and see them, perhaps squeeze them or trim them, and then put them somewhere handy.

Bringing the bodily movement aspects of this phase of mediation into conscious awareness instantaneously reveals very obvious choices that the authors of this method of mediation have made. Now I can see that this step quite deliberately excludes many possibilities, such as applying any kind of force on the clients, moving them or forming them – they are not the affected entities. And the possessions are not taken away from them or given to them, but to the agenda container.

Conscious awareness of the bodily movement aspects also suggests a whole range of possible nuance in how we might execute the step. For example, the mediator can move among the issues in any number of ways – as a swimmer in a crowded pool, as a dancer, as a pedestrian in traffic, as a shopper in a market, etc.

Conscious awareness of the bodily movement aspects goes even further to suggest options should we decide to vary from our training and do something a little different. Take for example the metaphor element we introduced much earlier that is missing from this particular step – obstacles. This step in the needs-based, facilitative mediator’s routine doesn’t speak of obstacles. However, the metaphoric versions that we have just generated can suggest some that we might want to take into account – such as the strong flow of client remarks for which we may decide to set up channels, or what to do with the energy generated by possible collisions of issues.

Moving on to the step wherein you "Identify the needs (separating them from more general issues or specific client solutions or positions) that must be met for a solution to be satisfactory":

In this step the mediator, again the Agent, is acting on what is in the container of the agenda (again the Affected Entity). According to the instructions in this step the mediator is to identify the needs that are in this container. This agenda container is to be divided into sub-parts – one for actual needs, others for general issues, client solutions or positions. Occupants of the "needs" part of the container are special – they "must be met for a solution to be satisfactory". What does this mean in metaphoric terms?

"Met" in this case seems to mean "fulfilled" or "satisfied." Therefore we might think of a need also as a kind of container in its own right which, when filled, changes into something else. But not anything can be used to fill these "need containers". The options that fill them must be satisfactory in some unstated sense. Is it the shape of the options, the color, or what that might enable them to fill these needs? The next instruction may help us with this.

The third step says to "generate multiple options that may satisfy one or more of the needs (while postponing assessment or evaluation of the options)".

The word "generate" might mean to start searching, or moving and looking around in nearby terrain, until you stumble on a number of things called "options" that inhabit this terrain.

It also might mean to fertilize your thinking with information you have collected regarding needs, and see what emerges. This latter interpretation uses a special case of cause and effect metaphor based on procreation – conceiving and giving birth to something new, by blending things already present.

* * *

I have illustrated the use of metaphor in three initial steps of the needs-based, facilitative approach to mediation that I was taught years ago. The method is the same as that used to identify client metaphors. I leave it to the reader to look for conceptual metaphor in the particular style of mediation he or she practices.

What do we learn from this metaphoric account of mediation? Aside from the simple stimulation and curiosity generated, probably the two most important things we learn are (1) some options for enhancing how we conduct mediation and (2) how to bring conceptual metaphors into our conscious thinking so we can more quickly detect and begin working with the metaphors that are always present in our clients’ versions of their problems.

Understanding the metaphoric account of mediation has other benefits to recommend it: One can begin to create a more detailed model of how mediation is or should be conducted. The vast diversity of meanings within simple mediation precepts is often readily unpacked. Having done this we can more easily see how mediators with the same professed approach might initially clash, but find ways to harmonize. Or, to understand more clearly the diversities of different mediation approaches. This may offer ways to fine-tune your approach to specific clients or circumstances. You may more readily find ways to be both more precise and more flexible in the application of your preferred mediation approach.


Most of us are not accustomed to thinking about our practice of mediation, or about our clients disputes, in terms of primary conceptual metaphor. This kind of metaphor, because it normally operates outside of awareness, requires a certain degree of effort to learn about, so that we become generally aware of it and can use it. Once it becomes familiar, however, it becomes much easier to apply.

Mediators who choose to learn about metaphor of this type, have available to themselves all of the very fruitful cognitive science research now being done on this subject (see Appendix 1, below).

Appendix 1 – Primary Conceptual Metaphor

In order to show how metaphor can be basic to thinking and how it can operate outside of your awareness so much of the time, I am going to present a detailed explanation here. (I suggest you follow up with the exercises in Appendix 3 in order to experience better how the primary conceptual metaphor operates.)

Metaphor has not always been considered to be fundamental. 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. For this paper I am focusing on certain metaphors that are effective in transferring understanding about causal relations – how one event may cause another – because cause and effect questions arise so frequently in the course of mediation.

Prototypical causation, according to Lakoff and Johnson, 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.

Recall that the "source" of a metaphor is the domain you know a lot about, understanding of which will be transferred to the "target", or the domain you know less about. Humans know a lot about the movement of their bodies, which makes it an excellent source domain candidate. Accumulation of knowledge about bodily movement begins before birth, becomes integrated with language, and develops in increasing complexity, variety and across levels of abstraction. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) present this source domain as an empirically defined basis for understanding causation via the operation of metaphor. It has logic as extensive (and as limited) as is each person’s bodily movement and behavior, plus what is communicated socially and culturally through language and the senses.

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).

Many variations are found for each of these terms, each coloring the causal events. The terms and their various forms metaphorically entail additional meaning, such as the locations to or from which things are moved, containers, and obstacles to movement.

Below I present metaphoric definitions of each of these terms. In addition to the kinds of illustrative examples given below, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) present extensive evidence that these linguistic forms represent a systematic correspondence between the logic of bodily movement and, in these examples, the logic of causation. They report also that this evidence is found widely among English and non-English-speaking peoples.

(Note: In the summaries below, the expression "is conceptualized metaphorically as" designates the term following it to be the source domain of the metaphor, while the term preceding is the target. Even these summaries are necessarily lengthy in order to let you see how a system of very simple metaphors work together to form complex understandings.)

Principal Terms

Illustrative Examples

A Cause is conceptualized metaphorically as a force, involving movement

What would move him to…?

An Agent originates a cause and can be conceptualized metaphorically as:


Human (who move, push, pull, bring, send, drive, thrust, project, give and take) (or representations of humans)

He brought it to…; She pushed for…; The boss’s comments sent a…; His forecast projected…; Can you give…? His action takes away from…

An Effect is a change of state of the Affected Entity and is conceptualized metaphorically as either one or the other of the following:


A movement of the Affected Entity


to another Location or into or out of a bounded region,

What would motivate him now to be creative?

Into another category

He had been a winner. Now he suddenly was put in the position of a loser.

Or being made into another shape

He felt half his normal size but needed to project himself bigger than life.

Birth or being borne

Playing company politics spawns resentment in some minds.

Replacement (in place)

He would have to reinvent himself.

A causal path is conceptualized metaphorically as a series of Locations such that arriving at one makes the next accessible; purposeful change is a destination and long term, purposeful activity is a journey.

At the job fair he pictured himself in this new position, and then he knew what to say.
By emphasizing how his experience translated to various job requirements, he sailed through each interview to where offers were plentiful.

A movement of Possessions (acquisitions or losses) to or away from the affected entity


Here purposeful change is acquiring desired objects.

His efforts brought many advantages.
Reinventing himself took nothing away.

Difficulties are conceptualized metaphorically as obstacles or impediments while moving; freedom is conceptualized metaphorically as no obstacles or impediments; enabling is absence or removal of obstacles.

It is clear sailing now, and he can take his career anywhere, so long as his radar guides him around the icebergs.

Some possibilities offered more opportunities for him to develop his talents.

Agents, Affected Entities, Locations and Possessions may be conceptualized metaphorically as Containers (bounded two- or three-dimensional spaces); containers have insides and outsides, may be deep, shallow, spacious, restricted, etc.

Single parenting took a lot out of him.

She searched her memory.

That crosses the line of acceptability.

He is back in her good graces.

The role was too limiting.

She was deeply into her new life.

A more complete rendition of metaphor structure is given by Lakoff and Johnson (1999). The portion of the metaphoric account tht I have given here certainly does not cover everything. However, it takes in a wide swath of everyday "intuition" about causation as expressed in common-sense language. (See Appendix 3 for exercises that are relevant to understanding the foregoing.)

Appendix 2 – 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 in a mediation session.

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 the analysis as presented in this paper by overlapping two metaphors.

Extended narrative or allegorical metaphors (as given in examples at the beginning of this paper) will have an outer story and numerous sub-plots within. When mediation clients "tell their story" this nesting is typical, if not always well organized. The mediator must make choices about which aspects to attend to. In this paper 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 in our mediation sessions. 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.

Appendix 3 – Exercises to Experience Conceptual Metaphor

Description and explanation only go so far. Full learning (some would say real learning) comes best from actual experience. That is, experience with conceptual metaphor as you, yourself, use it, as well as experience with how others use it.

Here are some simple exercises you can do alone or with one or two others:

1. Distinguishing Source From Target. In the following metaphor examples, identify which is/are the target(s) and which the source domain(s).

Once she formed an opinion her mind was closed.

Because they couldn’t work it out in mediation they battled it out in court.

He thought of compromise as having to give something up, while she thought of it as moving to a middle ground.

He lined up all the relevant information and put the irrelevant facts out of mind.

He sweetened the offer by adding a balloon payment in year three. The other party was inclined to go for more.

Consider other favorite metaphors (e.g., the level playing field of mediation; the win-win solution; can you change hats from mediator to arbitrator?)

2. Direct Experience of the Source Domain. This paper is premised on bodily movement, especially object manipulation, as the source of very important metaphors. This exercise is intended to remind us about and renew our experience of this domain and its "logic", particularly by manipulating one or more objects. Take a tennis ball or other light, unbreakable object [Affected Entity] or, better yet, take a small number of differing objects (e.g., a spongy "nurf" toy, a cup, a stick, a bag, a springy toy, a string of beads, a stone of about two inches in diameter). What changes do you see as you do each of these things to each object?

a. Position yourself [the Agent] so you are beside it, above it, it is above you and you are under it, in front of it, in back of it. Push it away, pull it to you, move it backwards, then forwards, lift it, drop it.

b. Note how fast were the movements you engaged in and how much force you used. What would happen if you moved twice as fast, twice as slow or if you applied 10 times as much force in the movements.

c. Now give greater speed and force by sweeping it, throwing, hitting, batting it.

d. Incline it or lean it or set it up so that a small trigger effect would let it loose to move. Can you hang it somewhere or tilt it? Does it twist, and does that potentially put it in motion or change it? What about putting a spin on it? If you twist it, can it be straightened again?

e. Just touch it, now take it, hold it, squeeze it, see if you can form it or change its shape, distort it, open it, rub up against it, smooth it, polish it,.

f. Arrange the objects in a group, a line, a mess. Separate the items in two or three distinct groups.

3. Practice in Transferring the "Logic" of Bodily Movement. Take as a subject some task you have needed to get done (e.g., choosing a gift, writing a difficult letter, preparing for an interview, doing a complex errand). You are the Agent and you will be moving yourself, others, things – both literally and figuratively in getting this task done. Adapt the instructions, a-f, in exercise 1, above, to your thinking about getting this task done. As you apply each of the variations in force or movement, what changes do you imagine as a result? (This is an exercise in applying the "logic" of bodily movement metaphorically to a chosen target. Some of it will "make sense" and some will seem silly, but that will not detract from your becoming more familiar with how structure can be passed between source and target domains.)

4. Practice in Transferring the "Logic" of Bodily Movement – Part 2 – Interview Another Person. Work with another person. Ask the other person to briefly describe a task he or she has recently thought about doing. Ask questions to explore movement, force and object manipulation per exercise 1, a-f, above. After each question responded to by the other person, ask if he or she could imagine a change or result?

5. Practice in Identifying Agents. Use comics from the daily paper. Identify the Agent. Then look to see if there are alternative possible interpretations of who or what is the Agent. Here is an example:



Is Dilbert the Agent (he is verbally "pushing" his boss)? Or, is it his boss (who is able to exert force as a boss)? It could also very well be the "impractical" plan (which evokes a reaction). But even more interesting – it could be the boss’s "philosophy". Go further: It could also be the meta-philosophy that Dilbert is taunting his boss to "bow before". Or, a combination of the boss’s and Dilbert’s philosophies that drives the boss to hop out of the room. But clearly there is more than one candidate to be Agent. Now take other comics and look for multiple Agent possibilities. For each Agent possibility, note who or what is the Affected Entity, what are Locations, Possessions, and Obstacles.

6. Practice in Identifying Force/Movement. Take any situation known to you that might be considered a problem or dispute. Write a very brief description of it to use in what comes next. Underline the words (usually verbs or verb phrases) that even vaguely suggest movement or force. Note to what degree each instance you have underlined is clear about what the movement or force is, how strong, what orientation, one-time or repeated, focused or not, shaping or not, etc. Finally, where the force or action is unclear, what questions would you have to ask to get more clarity? If possible, do this with another person and actually ask the questions. After 5 or 10 minutes, reverse roles.

7. The Whole Metaphor. Silently consider a particular instance in your own experience where you are in the process of producing some kind of change, and this involves people (not just things), and involves an activity over time. Examples: a project, a trip, working out a difficulty. Or, take a client deadlock or difficulty. Fill in the table (use option columns to identify multiple metaphors or alternate interpretations); be sure to find all three of the items with a spade (♠), and at least one of the three with a diamond (◊):


1st Option

2nd option

3rd Option


♠ Agent


♠ Force, Movement


♠ Affected Entity


◊ Locations


◊ Possessions


◊ Obstacles




8. Clarify and Extend Metaphor. Use the method described earlier in the main text to clarify and extend the metaphors identified in the previous exercise.

9. Apply to Practice of Mediation. List two, three, or four of what you believe are your main tenets for mediation. Identify the primary conceptual metaphors involved in each.


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