Why Metaphor Really Matters

Metaphor is the basic stuff of thought.

Just as matter is made up of atoms, thought – whether it’s in our conscious awareness or not – is made of metaphor.

We’re constantly comparing one thing to another. Each new thing, each new experience, that we encounter, is categorised and assessed in terms of the experiences and things we have previously encountered.

When we see a chair we’ve never seen before, how do we know it’s a chair? Because “it’s like…” other chairs we have seen before. We’re making an metaphor. It’s an ordinary, everyday thing that humans do.

As Hofstadter and Sander put it: “Analogies spring up in our minds numerous times every second. We swim non-stop in an ocean of small, medium-sized and large analogies, ranging from mundane trivialities to brilliant insights…”

“This incessant mental sparkling, lying somewhere below the conscious mental threshold, gives rise to our most basic, humdrum, low-level acts of categorization, whose purpose is to understand the situations that we encounter (or at least their most primordial elements), and to let us communicate with others about them.”

They use the word analogy where I have tended to use the word metaphor. But the two ideas are so close as to be practically identical.

Just because we make millions of metaphors every day doesn’t reduce their power. A compelling metaphor carries a message further and faster than any other medium.

The words we choose to label things – some of our most striking metaphors – can have a massive impact. For an example, check out the story of how I named the Good Friday agreement.

All art is metaphor. All storytelling. All drama.

And when it comes to persuasion, as Aristotle said, “The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.”

And when metaphors can have massive impact, and thought is made of metaphor, just as matter is made of atoms … what happens next? Perhaps that’s where X-Ray Listening comes in.

  • What do you think? Please comment below.

3 thoughts on “Why Metaphor Really Matters”

  1. It is true, Judy that the more you listen for them the more you hear and your criteria become looser.

    Our brains work by forming associations and our memories seem to work similarly.

    It is getting the correct metaphor for the circumstances that is the challenge.

  2. Clean Language is an effective tool for exporing metaphor, especially for helping someone else explore their own metaphor(s). By its nature, Clean Language in that situation avoids creating metaphor in order to enhance another’s exploration. Many of us resist the world’s invitation to explore, as the American poet Billy Collins illustrates

    Introduction To Poetry
    I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive. I say drop a mouse into a poemand watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch. I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore. But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hoseto find out what it really means. Billy Collins

    As a client becomes more open to the adventures, there can also be a time to introduce new stories and metaphors that can interact with the client’s own and open new possibilities. That’s what Doug Hofstadter’s talk, previously mentioned in this blog, does for me every time I watch it. I think it will do that for clients as well.

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