Embodying others’ metaphors

Acquiring their tacit knowledge
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Presented to The Developing Group, 19 Nov 2014

We were recently invited to facilitate a team of Czech Republic academics researching how the implicit knowledge of experienced teachers is acquired by student teachers.1 Explaining the transfer of skills from expert to novice is a challenge because so much of what an expert does is tacit – they have little awareness of how they do what they do. Not only that, a good proportion of how we learn is also tacit.

And it is not just experts who possess tacit knowledge. We all have a vast treasure store of knowledge held and acquired tacitly. How do you recognise a face you may only have seen once? How do you construct sentences with perfect syntax when you have only learned the rudiments of grammar? Anything that you can do without much thought or conscious effort and yet would have difficulty explaining precisely how you do it suggests a large degree of tacit knowledge. Much of what is called ‘embodied’ knowledge is tacit too.

The term tacit knowledge or tacit knowing originated with Michael Polyani.2 Appropriately, even the term is difficult to define, with one reseacher identifying “Eight different uses of the term, six concerning individual level and two collective level notions”.3

Metaphors contain tacit knowledge. You can explain what they mean to some degree and yet the subtle, implicit meaning that native speakers take for granted is hard to capture, even by professional linguists.4

It has been suggested that metaphor is a prime vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge, tacit or otherwise. This raises a question: How do we ‘acquire’ or ‘take on’ or ‘incorporate’ etc. metaphors that are not our own? Children seem to manage it effortlessly. But for adults who already have cognitive and emotional commitments to their (subconscious) metaphors, it’s a different story. Acquiring a new metaphor – especially one that is at variance with our current models of the world – requires change; and processes like cognitive dissonance, inhibition and homeostasis [Link to Modelling Dynamic Equilibrium available soon] act to keep things the same.

Acquisition of tacit skills is at the core of the various approaches to NLP modelling (see diagram) and we have described some common methods in Stage 5 of How to do a Modelling Project Acquiring the Model.

Professional modellers acquire other’s models and metaphors in a variety of ways, and we’ve  documented six methods:5

Unconscious uptake
Deep trance identification
Take on
Step in and try on
Teach me to be you
Facilitate self-modelling

Other metaphors for ‘acquiring’ include:

Becomes mine
Fit in
Pick up
Try out
Getting a feel for
Act ‘as if’

Activity 1

At the Developing Group, Penny described her simple metaphoric model of how she had mainatined her sense of self in challenging circumstances. The 20 participants were invited to acquire Penny’s metaphor in what ever way they liked. During the second description, Penny elaborated and enacted her metaphor in response to James’ Clean Language questions. Afterwards, in small groups, the participants facilitated each other to find out: “As you were acquiring the model, wheredid you construct it, and from who’s perspective?”

Their answers included various forms of:

Within my body (my movements mirrored Penny’s) Within and around me seeing/hearing/feeling what Penny described I imagined I was Penny Around Penny I saw myself taking it on I drew it on paper

Not one person said they took on Penny’s model ‘as is’, everyone modified it in some way. The modification was usually preceded by a reaction to Penny’s metaphors. The kinds of reactions were:

It was not for me. Bits didn’t work for me. I didn’t think it would work for me in context …. I couldn’t see the use (application). I already have my own way of doing it. It didn’t fit with me. It didn’t makel sense logically. Bits were missing. I couldn’t imagine how to do some of it. My body reacted (“It felt suffocating”, “I felt lonely”). I didn’t like the metaphor. I don’t have any need for it. Parts were against my values. This is just like … (something I already do). I’d have to take it on all or nothing, and it wasn’t going to be ‘all’ I wasn’t in a state to acquire it.

David Gordon and Graham Dawes said there are five common ways people do not acquire a new model (assuming they want to) and most of the comments above would fit into one of these categories:

I can’t get out of my present model

I can’t get into the new model

I can’t make sense of the model

I am concerned about the consequences of taking on the model

The model does not fit with who I am

Interestingly, the reactions people had to Penny’s metaphors were often about the entailments or inferences people made about the metaphors and not to the metaphors themselves. For example, one of Penny’s metaphors included a “cheese dome”. One participant said she had to “back away from the smell of the cheese”. Cheese was not part of the metaphor (only the dome) and smell did not occur in Penny’s description at all.

This supports the idea that inferences are unavoidable when interpreting a metaphor (in English or any other language).6

By definition, the acquisition of a new model/metaphor must include aspects which are not present in the current configuration and the greater the difference (content, process and structure), the more the current system is likely to react to the new metaphor. The questions to consider are:

  • What needs to happen to be ready to acquire a new metaphor?
  • When you have a response to a new metaphor, what would you like to have happen with that response?
  • How do you know if the response is a sign of the unacceptable or a reaction to the unfamiliar?

It seemed people’s first instinct was to change the metaphor rather than handle their response! For examples participants:

  • Changed attributes, function, location and/or scale of Penny’s metaphors
  • Found a different metaphor with equivalent attributes or a similar function
  • Compared it with other known models
  • Extended it (e.g. by added sound)
  • Thought, who else this might be useful for
  • Tried to understand the principles
  • Modelled out the structure

Activity 2

In a similar activity we invited particpants to acquire a more complicated model. Some years previously we had produced a ‘prototype model’ of how peace-worker Martin Snoddon approached “repairing damaged relationships”, especially when the values of the people involved could be very different to his own. (Our model is outlined below.)

The activity was in four parts:

Part a: In pairs (for 15 mins each way) participants used Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling to facilitate other to identify, access and embody a state needed to acquire, as close as possible.

Part b:  We led the whole group through a guided process for acquiring Martin’s model and metaphors (process only, without context).

Part c: We repeated part 2 with each person using a specific personal relationship as the context.

Part d: In small groups, participants:

  • Debriefed the experience
  • Described what they did to take on the model
  • Evlauated how much of the model they were able to acquire
  • Identified what would have facilitaed them to acquire more of the model
  • How they could apply what they have acquired.


1. A report of that research, including how they used Clean Interviewing, has been published in eBook form: Švec, V., Nehyba, J. & Svojanovský, P. (Eds.). (2017). Becoming a teacher: The dance between tacit and explicit knowledge. Brno: Masaryk University. Download English version.

2. Some background reading from the LSE can be downloaded Tacit knowledge-Making it explicit

3. Stephen Gourlay (2004) ‘Tacit knowledge’: the variety of meanings in empirical research

4. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2003) The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, Basic Books.

5. The six modellers were: John Grinder, Steve Gilligan, Robert Dilts, David Gordon & Graham Dawes, Richard Bandler, Lawley & Tompkins see A Modellers Perspective.

6. Zoltan Kövecses (2002) Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press. 

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