Coaching with Metaphor

Facilitating change through clients’ metaphors
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First published in the Cutting Edge Coaching Techniques Handbook.

Are you aware that your clients use metaphor several times a minute? And that your clients reason and act in ways that are consistent with their metaphors?  And that the nature of metaphor makes it ideal for working with out-of-the-ordinary problems and high-level goals?

And that Clean Language keeps coaches’ (unconscious) metaphors out of the coaching process and facilitates clients’ metaphors change — and as they do, so so their perceptions, decisions and actions? If not, you need to read this article.

Research Findings

In the last 25 years the research of many neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and cognitive linguists has converged to form a new understanding about the way the human mind works. Four key findings have been:

  1. Metaphor is far more common in everyday language than had previously been realised. It is nearly impossible to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without using metaphor.
  2. Usually neither speaker nor listener is aware of the metaphors being used.
  3. Metaphor is more than a linguistic device; it is central to the way people think, make sense of the world and take decisions.
  4. Metaphors are not used arbitrarily. They are mostly drawn from how people experience their body and how they interact with their environment.

Through our clinical and coaching experience, described in Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, we would add four findings of our own:

  1. While people often make use of common metaphors and clichés, the moment these are explored (with Clean Language) they become idiosyncratic and unique to the individual.
  2. An individual’s use of metaphor has a coherent logic that is consistent over time.
  3. Once a person settles on a particular metaphorical perspective there are logical consequences that follow, and result in behaviour that is consistent with the metaphor.
  4. When a person’s basic metaphor changes so does their view of the world, the decisions they make and the actions they take.

What is a Metaphor?

Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, started the Cognitive Linguistics revolution when they wrote Metaphors We Live By in 1980. They said:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.

We like this definition for a number of reasons:

  • It recognises that metaphor is about capturing the essential nature of an experience. For instance, when a client of ours said “making decisions is like going to the dentist” the reason he procrastinated was instantly apparent.
  • The definition acknowledges that metaphor is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world about us.
  • Metaphor need not be limited to verbal expressions. For us, a metaphor can include any expression or thing that is symbolic for a person, be that nonverbal behaviour, an image, a logo, a building, etc.

In other words, whatever a person says, sees, hears, feels or does, as well as what they imagine, can be used to comprehend and reason through metaphor.

It is vital to realise that metaphor is not an occasional foray into the world of figurative language, but fundamental to everyday cognition. Lakoff and Johnson state:

In all aspects of life, … we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.

This is unlikely to be what you were taught at school about metaphor. Zoltan Kovecses has compared the traditional and new Cognitive Linguistic views of metaphor:

Metaphor is a property of words; it is a linguistic phenomenon.Metaphor is a property of concepts and not of words.
Metaphor is used for some artistic and rhetorical purpose.The function of metaphor is to better understand certain concepts.
Metaphor is based on a resemblance or similarity between two entities that are compared and identified.Metaphor is based on a set of correspondences or mappings between constituent elements.
Metaphor is a conscious and deliberate use of words and you must have a special talent to do it well.Metaphor is used effortlessly in everyday life by ordinary people.
Metaphor is a figure of speech that we can do without; we use it for special effects.Metaphor is an inevitable process of human thought and reasoning.

Andrew Ortony has identified three characteristics of metaphors that account for their utility: vividness, compactness and expressibility. In short, metaphors carry a great deal of abstract and intangible information in a concise and memorable package.

In addition there is a fourth characteristic, and it is the one which most impacts the way we stay the same, and the way we learn and change. Metaphors illuminate some aspects of an experience while leaving other aspects in the shadows. Therefore they are a source of creativity; and at the same time they constrain our ways of thinking to that which makes sense within the metaphor. This influences the meaning and importance we attach to the original experience, the way it fits with other experiences, and the actions we take as a result.

For example, people invented computers to help them do things the brain could not do. Now many people conceive of the brain as being like a computer. This means we think of our brain as an ‘information processor’ that runs ‘programmes’ with ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. Thinking in this way has helped cognitive scientists to develop their ideas, but an over-reliance on this metaphor means that other ways of thinking about the brain (such as a living organism that is adaptive to its environment) are undervalued.

Zoltan Kovecses surveyed all of the metaphor dictionaries and research literature on conceptual metaphor to see, quantitatively, which sources were most used as the basis for everyday metaphors. He found that the six most used source domains were:

The human body (including health and illness)

Living things (e.g. animals, plants)

People-made things (e.g. buildings, machines, tools)

Human activities (e.g. games, sport, war, money, cooking, food)

The environment (e.g. heat, cold, light, darkness)

Physics (e.g. space, forces, movement, direction)

The following sentences illustrate how many metaphors are drawn from just one of these sources – plants:

Our company is growing.

They had to prune the workforce.

He works for the local branch of the bank.

The organisation was rooted in old thinking.

Our capital investment is beginning to bear fruit.

There is now a flourishing black market in software.

His business blossomed when they opened the new road.

Employers reaped enormous benefits from cheap foreign labour.

The seeds planted in the new marketing campaign are showing through.


Can you identify the metaphors in the following sentences and if you want, the source domains from which they are drawn (answers at the end):

a. I need a new technique for my toolbox.

b. We are being crushed by the weight of legislation.

c. The future is bright, the future is Orange.

d. We must defend our market share.

e. We’re going through a stormy phase.

f. We have to construct a new plan.

g. I can’t digest all these facts.

h. We were sprouting new ideas all over the place.

i. The management has to move on if they don’t want to be left behind.

j. Our values are at the heart of this organisation.

k. We have given birth to a new generation of products.

l. We’ve buried our head in the sand about the competition.

Explicit and Implicit Metaphors

Peter Hain, Northern Ireland Secretary, described his frustration at the slow progress of the devolution talks by saying: “For some Northern Ireland politicians glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel is so frightening they want to extend the tunnel.” (The Guardian, 14 July, 2006) We can easily recognise this as an explicit metaphor.

However, explicit metaphors are only a tiny fraction of metaphors used in everyday speech. The ‘key’ to recognising these mostly unconscious implicit metaphors is to notice that conversations are ‘littered’ with metaphors. In fact it is ‘hard’ to ‘put together’ an ‘everyday’ sentence which does not ‘contain’ a ‘hidden’ metaphor. Consider:

We are at a turning point with this project.

She began to rise up the organisation rapidly.

I have to learn to control my emotions.

I want to build my confidence.

These sentences are not obviously metaphoric until ‘turning point’, ‘rise up’, ‘control’ and ‘build’ are examined more closely. These are implicit metaphors since their metaphoric nature is disguised in ordinariness and familiarity. You can identify if a sentence contains a metaphor by wondering if the person is describing something they are actually physically doing, or is that what it is like? The above speaker is not saying that they want to ‘build’ their confidence in the way that they would ‘build’ a house; rather it is like confidence is constructed one brick at a time and when it is finished a solid structure remains. Once you start to recognise implicit metaphors you will ‘spot’ them everywhere.

“At a time when business investment is being squeezed by higher business taxes and the sky-high cost of energy, the added burden of spiralling pension contributions is threatening UK firms’ ability to invest in future jobs and growth.”
John Cridland, the deputy director-general of the CBI, The Independent, 17 July, 2006 (our emphasis)

Metaphors of Organisations

Gareth Morgan has highlighted the importance of metaphor in the world of organisations. The central thesis of his book Images of Organization is that:

All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways.

Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.

Take for example the very common metaphor that an organisation is like a machine. We think in terms of making efficiency the driving force. When things are going well we say the organisation is running like clockwork, a well-oiled engine or an assembly line. When they are not, then communication has broken down and needs fixing because there is a spanner in the works. We want to get to the nuts and bolts of the operation and intervene at the point of maximum leverage. If we regard people as cogs in a wheel, we will want to establish human resource departments, allocate manpower and recruit to fill a slot. And when its time to change we will re-engineer the processes.

Gareth Morgan says, “One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conception of organisations that it is often difficult to organise in any other way.” To open up our thinking we need to do three things:

1. To recognise that many conventional ideas about organisation and management are based on a small number of taken-for-granted images and metaphors.

2. To explore a number of alternative metaphors to create new ways of thinking about organisation.

3. To use metaphor to analyse and diagnose problems and to improve the management and design of organisations.

The take-home message of Gareth Morgan’s second book, Imaginization, is that “The challenge facing the modern manager is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor: To find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the situations with which they have to deal”. This is not some ‘nice to have’ tool, but an indispensable skill.

Whether you realise it or not, you, and everyone around you, are using metaphors all the time, and are taking decisions based on those metaphors. And a process called Symbolic Modelling is perfectly placed for working with metaphor in a coaching environment.

No contribution to coaching would be complete without reference to the outstanding work of Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. With its basis in Clean Language and its focus on coachee metaphors, Symbolic Modelling offers a powerful skill-set for personal change and development geared to compelling targets.

Angus McLeod, Ph.D, author of Performance Coaching: The Handbook for Managers, HR Professionals and Coaches.

Symbolic Modelling

Symbolic Modelling developed out of our five-year study of David Grove, one of the world’s most innovative psychotherapists. We wrote Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling so that Grove’s use of Clean Language with client-generated metaphors would become more widely known – not only within the therapeutic community but also among people who are interested in metaphor in other contexts: business, organisations, education and health.

Clean Language

As a coach, you cannot work with metaphor like you work with more conventional language and abstract concepts. Many ordinary questions do not make sense in the land of metaphor, e.g.:

Client: I hate making decisions, it’s like going to the dentist.

Coach: Oh I see, who’s your dentist? (!!)

In the 1980s, David Grove discovered that when he enquired about his client’s metaphors using their exact words, they stayed in the metaphor; and after a time, their perception of their problems began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a method of asking simple questions of clients’ metaphors which neither contaminate nor distort them.

When someone says “I keep running up against a wall in this company,” we assume that the metaphor is a perfect description of their experience. Thus, what kind of wall it is, where it is, what happened just before they started running, and what happens next will all be symbolic of what it is like to have that person’s experience — and these just happen to be four of the twelve basic Clean Language question set.

Twelve Basic Clean Language Questions


And is there anything else about (that) [x]?

And what kind of [x] (is that [x])?

And where/whereabouts is [x]?

And that’s [x] like what?

And is there a relationship between [x] and [y]?

And when [x], what happens to [y]?


And what happens just before [event x]?

And then what happens ? / And what happens next?

And where could/does [x] come from?


And what would you/[x] like to have happen?

And what needs to happen for [x] to [intention of x]?

And can [x] [intention of x]?

[x,y] = client’s exact words

Although you can bring in other questions, it’s amazing how much can be accomplished with just these twelve. We have run whole coaching sessions with only these questions. Clean Language questions are special because, used together, they only ask the client to add to their understanding of themselves. They do not reframe or make suggestions. Because of this, clean questions can be used in a remarkably wide range of circumstances – to solve problems, to plan, to create new ideas, and as a method for research and interviewing.

The following short exchange demonstrates the fundamentals of Clean Language. Clean questions are ‘clean’ because the coach is careful to ask about the client’s metaphors, to use their exact words to do so, and not to introduce any metaphors of their own. The manager (M) is being facilitated by a coach (C). (Note: Blue is used to highlight the format of the Basic Clean Language questions, not to signify emphasis.)

C: And what would you like to have happen?

M: I want to understand why our organisation is not more successful.

C: And when you want to understand why your organisation is not more successful, your organisation is like what?

M: You could say it’s like a machine.

C: And what kind of machine?

M: [Pause] It’s like a combine harvester I suppose.

C: And is there anything else about that combine harvester that your organisation is like?

M: It’s flexible with interchangeable parts depending on the type of crop.

C: And is there anything else about it being flexible with interchangeable parts?

M: Timing is so important. Too early or too late and you miss the opportunity. It’s no good harvesting until the crop is ready.

C: And then what happens?

M: We go through the whole cycle again.

C: And where could that cycle come from?

M: It’s the natural order of things. [Pause] That’s it. We have to educate the new recruits in the nature of the cycle. They try to rush things or they give up too quickly. If they knew about the cycle …

From Bombs to Batons

The next example illustrates how a client’s metaphors can guide a whole series of coaching sessions. The initial coaching session with a manager in a multinational company revealed that he wanted “to be able to hold the line against aggressive senior managers.” As I (James) listened to him describe his work, I noted down some of his metaphors: “I have to defend my people, “I blew up,” “I was in a Catch 22 situation,” “His method is to drill you and then attack,” “The troops are falling by the wayside,” “His lieutenant had a word with me,” “I can lose it in the heat of the battle.”

When these expressions are taken together it is easy to identify the manager’s underlying metaphor: Work is a battle.

When I repeated his exact words back to him he said he was “shell-shocked,” and we laughed. I asked “And where does being in the heat of the battle come from?”. He replied immediately, “You must defend your territory to be on the winning side.” Then I enquired, “And when you must defend your territory to be on the winning side, what would you like to have happen?” Traces of emotion flickered across his face before he shook his head and said “Not to have to defend myself.” I waited several minutes until he was ready for the next question, “And when you don’t have to defend yourself … then … what … happens?”.

After trying on and rejecting the idea of a sports team, he settled on being in an orchestra. We developed his desired metaphor by using Clean Language.

The manager recognised that seeing his work as a battle had significantly influenced the way he responded to his colleagues, and in particular those “higher up the command chain.”

Over the next few months he gradually altered his behaviour to more closely fit his orchestra metaphor. He used his new metaphor to gauge his, and others’ behaviour: Am I participating like a member of an orchestra? When am I the first violinist and when am I playing the triangle? When I chair a meeting, are we all playing the same tune and am I conducting appropriately? And surprise surprise, senior managers started acting differently towards him.

© 2006 Penny Tompkins and James Lawley


a. I need a new technique for my toolbox.
b. We are being crushed by the weight of legislation.
c. The future is bright, the future is Orange.
d. We must defend our market share.
e. We’re going through a stormy phase.
f. We have to construct a new plan.
g. I can’t digest all these facts.
h. We were sprouting new ideas all over the place.
i. The management has to move on if they don’t want to be left behind.
j. Our values are at the heart of this organisation.
k. We have given birth to a new generation of products.
l. We’ve buried our head in the sand about the competition.


Articles about Coaching with Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language reproduced at :

Duckett, Mike, Like a kid in a sweet shop: the use of generative metaphor, April, 2006.

Dunbar, Angela, Using Metaphors with Coaching, Bulletin of the Association for Coaching, October 2005. [Link available soon]

Lawley, James, Metaphors of Organisation – Parts 1 & 2, Effective Consulting Vol. 1, No. 4, & No. 5, 2001.

Skelton, Ned, Clean Language in Sports Coaching, September 2005. [Link available soon]

Tompkins, Penny & James Lawley, Coaching for P.R.O.’s, Coach the Coach, Feb. 2006.

Wilson, Carol, Metaphor & Symbolic Modelling For Coaches in Coach the Coach, Issue 4, 2004. [Link available soon]

Books about metaphor

Kovecses, Zoltan, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lawley, James & Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press, 2000.

Morgan, Gareth, Images of Organisation, Sage, 1986/1997.

Morgan, Gareth, Imaginization, Sage, 1997.

Ortony, Andrew (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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