Article from

First published in David Grove's November 1997 Newsletter

Figurative Language Examined:


by Cei Davis

Metaphors, symbols, metonymy, simile, emblems, images, analogies and icons are to name but a few of the elements incorporate in the syntax construction clients use to describe cognition and affect. What difference does it make for the therapist to recognise these variations?

Here are some definitions and a chance to recover the original definitions and reintroduce the reader to the special variances of figurative language. The aim is to clarify the words clients choose during a therapy session.

As this subject matter is enormous the points that will be addressed here are those considered useful for the therapist to recognize and value when working with a client's metaphors and symbols. The clinical implication notes relate to the work with the four quadrants. All associated concepts have been replaced under a category of figurative speech.

metaphor definition: An implied analogy in which one thing is compared or identified with another dissimilar thing. For example, a feeling that is described in terms of "butterflies in the stomach", a "heart beating like a drum", or "just going blank".

clinical implication: The emotive metaphor is generally an extended one. That is to say when a feeling is transformed into its metaphorical equivalent, it is sustained throughout the work and functions as a controlling image. Metaphors are 'vertical' in nature. They deepen the information. Time is frozen while the information is developed. The questions used to develop a metaphor develop space not time. A metaphor awakens the conceptions with more force and grace than 'everyday' language. An epistemological metaphor is personal and unique, translating a feeling or thought into a form that can travel through time to its original. Quadrant two and three questions develop metaphors.

symbol definition: A symbol signifies or stands for something else. Usually that something is concrete. It is not common for a thought or feeling to develop into a symbol as symbols are universal and represent cultures, traditions and religions of family of origin. Examples of symbols include a crucifix or a menorah, a stop sign or a door knocker. Symbols direct and organize, record and communicate large amounts of information in a quick way. Cultures rely on them to maintain order, discipline and moral ethics.

clinical implication: Symbols will occur more frequently when the client's information is referencing ancestral information. Symbols do not transform as readily as metaphors as they represent generations of use. Unlike the intimacy of metaphors, symbols are universal. They are represented and supported by generations of use. Symbols tend to maintain their form and therefore must be relocated to the time and space of origin. When a symbol is back in its original context, required qualities must be collected and brought forward to the present, where they can then be owned by the client. Symbols, unlike metaphors which usually have a definitive explanation derived from the experience, have so many interpretations and generations of use the it is impossible for them to be understood entirely. This is why it is necessary to place symbols in their effective context.

Symbolism can also be found in attitude and posture. For example, the postures of supplication or mudras, the gestures and attitudes incorporated in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Similar gestures are familiar in Christian traditions. An example of working with this kind of symbolism: the client sits with her hands held together as if in prayer, but rather than a feeling of accord with her hands, the client experiences discomfort or confusion. The clasped hands will have an embedded doctrine the is not conformable with the client. An intervention will involve pulling the hands back in time to the original owner. This will provide the context such as an ancestor who prayed for forgiveness for a misdemeanour and whose guilt continues to be passed down generations until the guilt was felt but the origin of it is long forgotten, and no longer relevant. so in essence it is the guilt that needs to be placed back in its original context, the hands in prayer have been the symbol. The aim becomes; placing the hands back in time to free the hands of the client to either be held in more congruent prayer or to be otherwise occupied.

imagery definition: A representation of the external form of an object. For example, a statue. [OED]

clinical implication: Imagery refers to something that can be perceived through more than one of the senses. It is not exclusively eidectic in nature. This implies that there is a body present to perceive the information. It is possible there is an observing ego which may be a fragment of the body, for example, just eyes that watch and see, a nose that can smell the burning of a cigarette, or a pair of ears that hear footsteps. Although the experience can exist as a landscape within the body's boundary, some experiences are senses located outside the body, where the information is located. Questions that pertain to quadrant three are asked to develop and distance the experience from the client so that more new information can enter the "picture". The use of personal pronouns provides clues for this shift, for example from "I" to "she", "they", or "it". This also announces the shift in juxtaposition of the client to the image. Such a change alters the infrastructure of the image thereby freeing the client from a direct 'cause and affect'.

metonymy definition: A figure of speech that substantiates the name of a related object, person or idea for the subject. For example, crown , for monarchy or Shakespeare for the Works of Shakespeare .

clinical implication: Unlike metaphor, metonymy has a "horizontal" motif of moving across time. [Jakobson[ Metonymy is rather like a hologram, a part of something represents the whole. When working with metonymy, a large expanse of time needs to be considered. For example: a client's experience of depression is experienced in terms of a black cloud .. If there is a predisposing family history of depression, instead of deepening the black cloud , as the therapist would in quadrant two, this black cloud belongs to previous generations of depression and will be addressed by asking quadrant four questions. Quadrant four questions pull the information, the black cloud, back in time to the first owner of the cloud and the original situation that caused it. The original situation is then healed of imposing the cloud on subsequent generations.

icon definition: A sign that has characteristics in common with the thing it signified. [[OED] From the Greek, 'eikon'. Used to create a boundary between the sacred and the profane.

clinical implication: A client experiences a negative reaction that is triggered by a certain stimulus, for example, any tall man with a beard becomes the representation for what is "bad" or "frightening" in men. This type of man will assume greater proportions of power and influence over the client based on her initial experience of his form. a dramatic physiological reaction follows every occasion she sees someone who is tall and bearded. Two main interventions can be brought about. The first is a quadrant two intervention in which the man is further developed until the information is differentiated and pertains only to that man who traumatised the client. The second intervention involves quadrant four where the information is pulled back to before the man had a beard and was "bad". Which quadrant to enter may not be clear until the questions are asked. If the man does not individualize in quadrant two, then the therapist can proceed to ask quadrant four questions. There may be, in this instance, deeper roots to the "bad" and the "frightening" carried in the details about the man.

© 1997 Cei Davies

First published on this site 4 January 1998.


Cei Davies Linn’s partnership with David Grove spanned three decades and closely involved her in the early evolution and development of his innovative work such as Clean Language and Epistemological Metaphors. Together they conducted workshops and retreats and produced a series of training materials for professional counsellors. Previously Cei has been a nursing sister and went on to hold the post of Senior Psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. She currently lives and works in Northamptonshire, UK. 

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