Why Is Metaphor So Important In Coaching?

What’s important about metaphor? We hear metaphors all the time, don’t we? People talking about one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing.

For example, when someone says, “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” they’re comparing their current situation, that they can’t decide between two things, to being stuck between a rock and a hard place. So they’re comparing their real-life situation to this imaginary situation. And you can easily recognise that as a metaphor.

And as a coach you know that this is important – and there are lots of different techniques to help people change the way they think about things. So if you can persuade your client that it’s not like a rock and a hard place, that in fact they’re walking into into a beautiful landscape, then of course the situation will change.

But there’s a whole lot more to metaphor than that. One piece is that that metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind, that we can’t not think in metaphor. Metaphor is the atom of thought.

What do I mean by that? Well we’re thinking about one kind of thing in terms of other kinds of things from the very moment we’re “thinking”at all. Even before we’re born, we’re associating certain chemical mixes… we know that a certain chemical mix symbolises, stands for, equates to, calmness, another to agitation. Even single-celled creatures have this notion of towards and away-from, that different chemical soups symbolise different things.

Now, as we’re born, we grow, we learn about different things, each of us forms a complex network of equating one kind of thing with another kind of thing.

We learn words, words are symbols. Each word represents the thing we’re talking about. It isn’t the thing itself – the menu is not the meal.

And as a result, the words we’re using are shot through with metaphor. And the metaphors in our words represent the metaphors in our thinking. If I say it’s like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, at one level it’s literally like that for me.

It’s like those words come to my lips unbidden… at this point in these kind of conversations I always get really tongue-tied because I can’t not speak in metaphor. We use something like six metaphors a minute in ordinary English, and that means even in talking about metaphor I can’t not use metaphors.

So what are some of the ones I just used? Tongue-tied for example – our tongue’s not literally getting tied in knots but it feels a bit like it. I’m not literally bidding my words to come forth, to emerge. I’m not I’m not literally shouting or saying to them “Come!” announcing like like a priest in church or something, “Come forth, words!” They come unbidden. And so on.

So the metaphors in our language are there before we think about it. The metaphors in our language are there as a side effect of the metaphors in our thoughts.

So when, in Clean Language, we talk about using a person’s own metaphors to help them change, we’re talking about tuning in and starting to hear *those* metaphors as well as the ordinary ones, the rock-and-a-hard-place ones that we already know about.

And typically when you learn Clean Language – or certainly when you learn it from me – one of the things you learn to do is distinguish between the metaphors that people feel good about, “It’s like I’m putting clear with clear blue water between me and my unpleasant past,” and metaphors that people feel not-so-good-about, “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” and know what to do about it when you hear those two different things happening. Because there are specific Clean Language questions which are best to use in those circumstances.

I’m not putting those in a five-minute video right now, I’m talking about metaphor in principle, but hopefully that helped you to understand what I mean at least when I am saying metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind.


  • Michelange


    this was an excellent and penetratively insightful read. sometimes things are so close we lose sight of them. thank you!

  • Jerome Kiel


    The metaphors used which have become clichés are recognised by most in an instant, although their origins are not always known.
    The more subtle ones come with a little more effort. Prof. Arthur Marwick coined the term ‘unwitting testimony ‘. This is the technique of looking behind a painting or a piece of writing to discover the real message or implied meaning behind the visual or poetic metaphor.

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