As executive coaches, we help our clients dive deeper into the understanding of their goals and challenges. However, both clients and coaches can encounter obstacles when grappling with abstract or novel concepts. To bridge this gap and foster deeper comprehension, coaches can employ metaphors in their coaching sessions. Metaphors serve as powerful tools, connecting existing knowledge with new ideas, thus facilitating the development of profound insights (Passmore, 2023). Below we examine the definition of metaphors, explore their purpose in coaching, and delve into the benefits they offer to clients in this context.
What are metaphors?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in [the phrase] ‘drowning in money’).” They explain that “a metaphor is an implied comparison” that is a “leap beyond rational” comparisons. Some examples include:
”She’s a peach!”
”He’s drowning in money.”
“They have a heart of gold.”
Purpose of metaphors
In the coaching setting, metaphors serve the purpose of facilitating the client's exploration of new understandings and perspectives. In Jonathan Passmore’s discussion on metaphors in coaching, he states “metaphors typically act as a bridge between a source, which is concrete, and a target, which is more abstract or is less familiar. It is this which makes them so powerful as a tool in coaching, as the client too is struggling to move from their current concrete reality to the uncertain future” (Passore, 2023). According to Smith et al. from The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, metaphors can be used to “encourage deep reflection and offer new insight” (2023). By using metaphors in the coaching setting, coaches help their clients establish new understandings and dive deeper into new concepts by connecting the new material to previously understood topics.
10 metaphors that tell a story suitable for business
Building a skyscraper: Just like constructing a skyscraper, building a business involves laying a strong foundation, meticulously planning the design, and gradually adding floors (or expanding). It requires a skilled team of experts (employees) to execute the plan and constant adjustments and checks to ensure it stands strong.
Running a marathon: Running a business is not a sprint, but a marathon. It's about the long game, not quick victories. Endurance, pacing, preparation, and recovery are all key to succeeding.
Climbing a mountain: Scaling a business is like climbing a mountain. It takes careful planning, the right equipment, and the ability to overcome unexpected challenges. The climb is tough, but the view from the top is worth it.
The chess game: Business strategy is akin to a game of chess. Each move is critical, one must think several moves ahead, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of every piece.
Guiding a river: A business leader is like someone guiding a river's course. The water (business operations) naturally flows and the leader must navigate around obstacles, channeling the energy in the most productive direction.
The symphony: Just like creating a beautiful symphony, a successful business involves the harmonious blending of different elements (employees, strategies, goals) to produce a coherent, pleasing whole.
The human body: A business is like the human body, with different departments functioning like organs. The body requires a balanced diet and regular check-ups (resources and reviews) to stay healthy and perform optimally.
The beehive: Businesses are similar to a beehive. Every worker bee (employee) plays a vital role, working together towards a common goal. The queen bee (CEO) does not control each bee but provides the vision and direction for the hive.
Journey through a jungle: Leading a business can feel like navigating through a dense jungle. You must chart your path, overcome challenges and threats, and adapt to the changing environment.
Sailing a ship: Just like sailing a ship, running a business involves navigating through calm and turbulent waters (market conditions), understanding the wind direction (trends), and adjusting the sails accordingly to reach the destination (business goals).
Benefits of metaphors in coaching
Metaphors can help clients increase their understanding by connecting new concepts to previously understood experiences, ideologies, or concepts. According to Passmore, metaphors can allow clients to “make sense of what is happening to them and how they might better deal with the situation” (2023). Smith et al. also state that metaphors are commonly used to “describe complex phenomena'' in easier-to-understand ways (2023). Additionally BBC journalist Hélène Schumacher, states that metaphors are commonly used in “everyday language” to help us “make sense of the world around us” (2020). Research has also indicated that metaphors help people better understand the emotions of others (Bowes & Katz, 2015).
Metaphors also encourage creativity in the coaching conversation. When metaphors are introduced to the conversation, clients are encouraged to think abstractly, discuss new concepts, and connect these new concepts to previously understood concepts in new and unique ways. According to Ray Kurzweil, “A key aspect of creativity is the process of finding great metaphors. Symbols that represent something else.” Metaphors also encourage the unique interpretation of the client, based on their own experiences (Purdue University, n.d.). Metaphors help coaching clients use their creativity to apply their own experiences to new concepts, ultimately deepening their understanding.
Metaphors can also assist in recall and memory retention. According to Passmore, metaphors can “enhance their memory, as most clients are better able to recall a vivid metaphor than the details of a back-and-forth discussion with their coach, or a series of verbalized actions.” This is especially true when the metaphor involves a variety of senses (sight, taste, touch, smell, etc.) (Passmore, 2023). Research also indicates that in advertising, “metaphorical ads” outperformed in terms of “brand recall” than simply “functional ads” (Beard, Henninger, & Venkatraman, 2022). By introducing metaphors to the coaching conversation, coaches can help clients better retain new material, goals, concepts, and/or objectives.
Tips on using metaphors
Be culturally aware
Metaphors are often related to past experiences and cultural understandings or sayings. Passmore states that “it’s important for the coach to be culturally sensitive” when using metaphors. For example, a British metaphor such as “it’s all gone pear-shaped” meaning “it’s all gone wrong” or an American metaphor such as “gone in two shakes of a cow’s tail” meaning gone soon, would not be clear to coaching clients from other regions.
Do not plan for metaphors
Metaphors cannot be planned for as they arrive naturally in the coaching conversation. Passmore states that clients will “spontaneously generate their own metaphors as they try to make sense of their situation” and coaches can play off of these during the coaching session. Passmore elaborates, “Like powerful questions or reflections, [metaphors] cannot be planned in advance; they emerge from the conversation. As a result, there is no single formula for producing metaphors, nor is there a useful list of metaphors to keep in one’s back pocket” (2023).
Accept clients' metaphors, don’t be defensive
When clients create their own metaphors in response to a coach, it’s important for the coach to not become defensive or argue the validity of their metaphor. Remember, metaphors are based on previous experiences or understandings.
Because metaphors are established on prior understandings, it’s important that metaphors are appropriately explained in the coaching context. This ensures that the intended meaning is communicated and leaves little room for misinterpretation (Passmore, 2023).
Using metaphors that are “meaningful to the client” establishes the presence of empathy in the coaching relationship (Passmore, 2023). The use of these metaphors further supports the coaching relationship and is a prime example of a coach’s understanding of their clients' perspectives, understandings, and culture. This is a key characteristic of high-impact coaching.
Metaphors play a significant role in coaching by facilitating clients' deeper understanding, fostering creativity, and improving memory retention. They serve as powerful bridges between current knowledge and new concepts, enabling clients to grasp abstract ideas more effectively. By employing metaphors, coaches encourage clients to think abstractly, explore novel perspectives, and connect new concepts with their existing knowledge. Additionally, metaphors enhance memory recall and facilitate the application of personal experiences to new situations. However, coaches must be culturally sensitive, embrace clients' metaphors, explain them appropriately, and establish empathy through meaningful metaphors. By harnessing the power of metaphors, coaches can create a richer coaching experience for their clients, ultimately leading to enhanced growth and development.
Beard, E. C., Henninger, N., & Venkatraman, V. (2022). Making Ads Stick: Role of Metaphors in improving Advertising Memory. Journal of Advertising, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00913367.2022.2089302
Jensen, T. (n.d.). What is a Metaphor? | OSU Guide to Literary Terms | Oregon State University. College of Liberal Arts. Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-metaphor
Kurzweil, R. C. (2013). How to create a mind: the secret of human thought revealed. Choice Reviews Online, 50(11), 50–6167. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.50-6167
Lăpușneanu, D. (2023, July 7). Learn British Phrases, Sayings, And Slang: A Guide To Speaking Like A Brit. Mondly Blog. https://www.mondly.com/blog/50-common-british-phrases-to-impress-your-british-mates/
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Metaphor Definition & Meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metaphor
Metaphors in Creative Writing - Purdue Owl® - Purdue University. (n.d.). https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/teacher_and_tutor_resources/writing_tutors/tutoring_creative_writing_students/metaphors_in_creative_writing.html
Rodríguez, C. (2018, March 4). Use metaphors and boost creativity - César Rodríguez - medium. Medium. https://cesarrg.medium.com/use-metaphors-and-boost-creativity-8fd2be8648dc
Schumacher, H. (2020, July 13). The words that help us understand the world. BBC. Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200710-the-words-that-stretch-how-we-think
Smith, K. S., Kinsella, E. A., Moodie, S., McCorquodale, L., & Teachman, G. (2023). Metaphors of mindfulness in pediatric occupational therapy practice. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1177/03080226231174795
Copyright © 2023 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.