First published in the Cutting
Edge Coaching Techniques Handbook,
CIPD Coaching At Work
13 September 2006
Coaching with Metaphor
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
Are you aware that your clients use metaphor several times a minute?
And that your clients reason and act in ways that are consistent with
their metaphors? And that the nature of metaphor makes it
ideal for working with out-of-the-ordinary problems and high-level
goals? And that Clean Language keeps coaches'
(unconscious) metaphors out of the coaching process and facilitates
clients' metaphors change — and as they do, so so their
perceptions, decisions and actions? If not, you need to read this
In the last 25 years the research of many neuroscientists,
cognitive scientists and cognitive linguists has converged to form a
new understanding about the way the human mind works. Four key
findings have been:
1. Metaphor is far more common in everyday
language than had previously been realised. It is nearly impossible
to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions
without using metaphor.
2. Usually neither speaker nor listener is aware of the
metaphors being used.
3. Metaphor is more than a linguistic device; it is central
to the way people think, make sense of the world and take decisions.
4. Metaphors are not used arbitrarily. They are mostly
drawn from how people experience their body and how they interact
with their environment.
Through our clinical and coaching experience, described in
Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling,
we would add four findings of our own:
5. While people often make use of common
metaphors and clichés, the moment these are explored (with
Clean Language) they become idiosyncratic and unique to the
6. An individual's use of metaphor has a coherent logic
that is consistent over time.
7. Once a person settles on a particular metaphorical
perspective there are logical consequences that follow, and result in
behaviour that is consistent with the metaphor.
8. When a person's basic metaphor changes so does their
view of the world, the decisions they make and the actions they take.
What is a Metaphor?
Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, started the
Cognitive Linguistics revolution when they wrote Metaphors We Live
By in 1980. They said:
The essence of metaphor is
understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of
We like this definition for a number of reasons:
- It recognises that metaphor is about capturing the essential
nature of an experience. For instance, when a client of ours said
"making decisions is like going to the dentist" the reason he
procrastinated was instantly apparent.
- The definition acknowledges that metaphor is an active process
which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and
the world about us.
- Metaphor need not be limited to verbal expressions. For us, a
metaphor can include any expression or thing that is symbolic for
a person, be that nonverbal behaviour, an image, a logo, a
In other words, whatever a person says, sees, hears, feels or
does, as well as what they imagine, can be used to comprehend and
reason through metaphor.
It is vital to realise that metaphor is not an occasional foray
into the world of figurative language, but fundamental to everyday
cognition. Lakoff and Johnson state:
In all aspects of life, ... we define
our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the
basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make
commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part
structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of
This is unlikely to be what you were taught at school about
metaphor. Zoltan Kovecses has compared the traditional and new
Cognitive Linguistic views of metaphor:
COGNITIVE LINGUISTIC VIEW
Metaphor is a property of words; it is a linguistic
Metaphor is a property of concepts and not of words.
Metaphor is used for some artistic and rhetorical
The function of metaphor is to better understand certain
Metaphor is based on a resemblance or similarity between
two entities that are compared and identified.
Metaphor is based on a set of correspondences or mappings
between constituent elements.
Metaphor is a conscious and deliberate use of words and
you must have a special talent to do it well.
Metaphor is used effortlessly in everyday life by
Metaphor is a figure of speech that we can do without; we
use it for special effects.
Metaphor is an inevitable process of human thought and
Andrew Ortony has identified three characteristics of metaphors
that account for their utility: vividness, compactness and
expressibility. In short, metaphors carry a great deal of
abstract and intangible information in a concise and memorable
In addition there is a fourth characteristic, and it is the one
which most impacts the way we stay the same, and the way we learn and
change. Metaphors illuminate some aspects of an experience while
leaving other aspects in the shadows. Therefore they are a source of
creativity; and at the same time they constrain our ways of thinking
to that which makes sense within the metaphor. This influences the
meaning and importance we attach to the original experience, the way
it fits with other experiences, and the actions we take as a result.
For example, people invented computers to help them do things the
brain could not do. Now many people conceive of the brain as being
like a computer. This means we think of our brain as an 'information
processor' that runs 'programmes' with 'inputs' and 'outputs'.
Thinking in this way has helped cognitive scientists to develop their
ideas, but an over-reliance on this metaphor means that other ways of
thinking about the brain (such as a living organism that is adaptive
to its environment) are undervalued.
Zoltan Kovecses surveyed all of the metaphor dictionaries and
research literature on conceptual metaphor to see, quantitatively,
which sources were most used as the basis for everyday metaphors. He
found that the six most used source domains were:
The human body (including health and illness)
Living things (e.g. animals, plants)
People-made things (e.g. buildings, machines, tools)
Human activities (e.g. games, sport, war, money, cooking, food)
The environment (e.g. heat, cold, light, darkness)
Physics (e.g. space, forces, movement, direction)
The following sentences illustrate how many metaphors are drawn
from just one of these sources — plants:
Our company is growing.
They had to prune the workforce.
He works for the local branch of the bank.
The organisation was rooted in old thinking.
Our capital investment is beginning to bear fruit.
There is now a flourishing black market in software.
His business blossomed when they opened the new road.
Employers reaped enormous benefits from cheap foreign
The seeds planted in the new marketing campaign are showing
Can you identify the metaphors in the following sentences and if
you want, the source domains from which they are drawn (answers at
a. I need a new technique for my toolbox.
b. We are being crushed by the weight of legislation.
c. The future is bright, the future is Orange.
d. We must defend our market share.
e. We're going through a stormy phase.
f. We have to construct a new plan.
g. I can't digest all these facts.
h. We were sprouting new ideas all over the place.
i. The management has to move on if they don't want to be left
j. Our values are at the heart of this organisation.
k. We have given birth to a new generation of products.
l. We've buried our head in the sand about the competition.
Explicit and Implicit Metaphors
Peter Hain, Northern Ireland Secretary, described his frustration
at the slow progress of the devolution talks by saying: "For some
Northern Ireland politicians glimpsing the light at the end of the
tunnel is so frightening they want to extend the tunnel." (The
Guardian, 14 July, 2006) We can easily recognise this as an
explicit metaphor. However, explicit metaphors are only a tiny
fraction of metaphors used in everyday speech. The 'key' to
recognising these mostly unconscious implicit metaphors is to
notice that conversations are 'littered' with metaphors. In fact it
is 'hard' to 'put together' an 'everyday' sentence which does not
'contain' a 'hidden' metaphor. Consider:
We are at a turning point with this project.
She began to rise up the organisation rapidly.
I have to learn to control my emotions.
I want to build my confidence.
These sentences are not obviously metaphoric until 'turning
point', 'rise up', 'control' and 'build' are examined more closely.
These are implicit metaphors since their metaphoric nature is
disguised in ordinariness and familiarity. You can identify if a
sentence contains a metaphor by wondering if the person is describing
something they are actually physically doing, or is that what it
is like? The above speaker is not saying that they want to
'build' their confidence in the way that they would 'build' a house;
rather it is like confidence is constructed one brick at a time and
when it is finished a solid structure remains. Once you start to
recognise implicit metaphors you will 'spot' them everywhere.
"At a time when business investment is
being squeezed by higher business taxes and the sky-high cost of energy, the
added burden of spiralling pension contributions is threatening UK firms' ability to invest in future jobs and growth."
John Cridland, the deputy director-general of the CBI, The Independent, 17 July, 2006 (our emphasis)
Metaphors of Organisations
Gareth Morgan has highlighted the importance of metaphor in the
world of organisations. The central thesis of his book Images of
Organization is that:
All theories of organization and
management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us
to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors
create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they
also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways
of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that
gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no 'correct theory'
for structuring everything we do.
Take for example the very common metaphor that an organisation is
like a machine. We think in terms of making efficiency the driving
force. When things are going well we say the organisation is
running like clockwork, a well-oiled engine or an
assembly line. When they are not, then communication has
broken down and needs fixing because there is a
spanner in the works. We want to get to the nuts and
bolts of the operation and intervene at the point of maximum
leverage. If we regard people as cogs in a wheel, we will
want to establish human resource departments, allocate
manpower and recruit to fill a slot. And when its time
to change we will re-engineer the processes.
Gareth Morgan says, "One of the most basic problems of modern
management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in
our everyday conception of organisations that it is often difficult
to organise in any other way." To open up our thinking we need to do
1. To recognise that many conventional ideas
about organisation and management are based on a small number of
taken-for-granted images and metaphors.
2. To explore a number of alternative metaphors to create
new ways of thinking about organisation.
3. To use metaphor to analyse and diagnose problems and to
improve the management and design of organisations.
The take-home message of Gareth Morgan's second book,
Imaginization, is that "The challenge facing the modern
manager is to become accomplished in the art of using metaphor: To
find appropriate ways of seeing, understanding, and shaping the
situations with which they have to deal". This is not some 'nice to
have' tool, but an indispensable skill. Whether you realise it or
not, you, and everyone around you, are using metaphors all the time,
and are taking decisions based on those metaphors. And a process
called Symbolic Modelling is perfectly placed for working with
metaphor in a coaching environment.
No contribution to coaching
would be complete without reference to the outstanding work
of Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. With its basis in Clean
Language and its focus on coachee metaphors, Symbolic
Modelling offers a powerful skill-set for personal change
and development geared to compelling targets.
Ph.D, author of Performance
Coaching: The Handbook for Managers, HR Professionals and
Symbolic Modelling developed out of our five-year study of David
Grove, one of the world's most innovative psychotherapists. We wrote
Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling
so that Grove's use of Clean Language with client-generated metaphors
would become more widely known — not only within the therapeutic
community but also among people who are interested in metaphor in
other contexts: business, organisations, education and health.
As a coach, you cannot work with metaphor like you work with more
conventional language and abstract concepts. Many ordinary questions
do not make sense in the land of metaphor, e.g.:
Client: I hate making decisions, it's like
going to the dentist.
Coach: Oh I see, who's your dentist? (!!)
In the 1980s, David Grove discovered that when he enquired about
his client's metaphors using their exact words, they stayed in the
metaphor; and after a time, their perception of their problems began
to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a method of asking
simple questions of clients' metaphors which neither contaminate nor
When someone says "I keep running up against a wall in this
company," we assume that the metaphor is a perfect description of
their experience. Thus, what kind of wall it is, where
it is, what happened just before they started running, and
what happens next will all be symbolic of what it is like to
have that person's experience — and these just happen to be
four of the twelve basic Clean Language question set.
Twelve Basic Clean Language Questions
And is there anything else about (that) [x] ?
And what kind of [x] (is that [x]) ?
And where/whereabouts is [x] ?
And that's [x] like what?
And is there a relationship between [x] and [y] ?
And when [x], what happens to [y] ?
MOVING TIME QUESTIONS
And what happens just before [event x] ?
And then what happens ? / And what happens next ?
And where could/does [x] come from ?
And what would you/[x] like to have happen ?
And what needs to happen for [x] to [intention of x] ?
And can [x] [intention of x] ?
[x,y] = client's exact words
Although you can bring in other questions, it's amazing how much
can be accomplished with just these twelve. We have run whole
coaching sessions with only these questions. Clean Language questions
are special because, used together, they only ask the client to add
to their understanding of themselves. They do not reframe or make
suggestions. Because of this, clean questions can be used in a
remarkably wide range of circumstances — to solve problems, to
plan, to create new ideas, and as a method for research and
The following short exchange demonstrates the fundamentals of
Clean Language. Clean questions are 'clean' because the coach is
careful to ask about the client's metaphors, to use their exact words
to do so, and not to introduce any metaphors of their own. The
manager (M) is being facilitated by a coach (C). (Note: Blue is used to highlight the
format of the Basic Clean Language questions, not to signify
C: And what would you
like to have happen?
M: I want to understand why our organisation is not more
C: And when you want to
understand why your organisation is not more successful, your
organisation is like what?
M: You could say it's like a machine.
C: And what kind of machine?
M: [Pause] It's like a combine harvester I suppose.
C: And is there anything else about
that combine harvester that your organisation is like?
M: It's flexible with interchangeable parts depending on
the type of crop.
C: And is there anything else
about it being flexible with interchangeable parts?
M: Timing is so important. Too early or too late and you
miss the opportunity. It's no good harvesting until the crop is
C: And then what happens?
M: We go through the whole cycle again.
C: And where could that cycle
M: It's the natural order of things. [Pause] That's it. We
have to educate the new recruits in the nature of the cycle. They try
to rush things or they give up too quickly. If they knew about the
From Bombs to Batons
The next example illustrates how a client's metaphors can guide a
whole series of coaching sessions. The initial coaching session with
a manager in a multinational company revealed that he wanted "to be
able to hold the line against aggressive senior managers." As I
(James) listened to him describe his work, I noted down some of his
metaphors: "I have to defend my people, "I blew up," "I was in a
Catch 22 situation," "His method is to drill you and then attack,"
"The troops are falling by the wayside," "His lieutenant had a word
with me," "I can lose it in the heat of the battle."
When these expressions are taken together it is easy to identify
the manager's underlying metaphor: Work is a battle.
When I repeated his exact words back to him he said he was
"shell-shocked," and we laughed. I asked "And where does being in
'the heat of the battle' come from?". He replied immediately, "You
must defend your territory to be on the winning side." Then I
enquired, "And when you must defend your territory to be on the
winning side, what would you like to have happen?" Traces of emotion
flickered across his face before he shook his head and said "Not to
have to defend myself." I waited several minutes until he was ready
for the next question, "And when you don't have to defend yourself
... then ... what ... happens?".
After trying on and rejecting the idea of a sports team, he
settled on being in an orchestra. We developed his desired metaphor
by using Clean Language.
The manager recognised that seeing his work as a battle had
significantly influenced the way he responded to his colleagues, and
in particular those "higher up the command chain." Over the next few
months he gradually altered his behaviour to more closely fit his
orchestra metaphor. He used his new metaphor to gauge his, and
others' behaviour: Am I participating like a member of an orchestra?
When am I the first violinist and when am I playing the triangle?
When I chair a meeting, are we all playing the same tune and am I
conducting appropriately? And surprise surprise, senior managers
started acting differently towards him.
© 2006 Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
For details of training in Symbolic Modelling visit: Calendar of Events
a. I need a new technique for my
b. We are being crushed
by the weight of legislation.
c. The future is bright, the future is
d. We must defend our market share.
e. We're going through a stormy phase.
f. We have to construct a new plan.
g. I can't digest all these facts.
h. We were sprouting new ideas all over the
i. The management has to move on if they don't want to be left behind.
j. Our values are at the heart of this
k. We have given
birth to a new generation of products.
l. We've buried our
head in the sand about the
Articles about Coaching with Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language reproduced at www.cleanlanguage.co.uk:
Duckett, Mike, 'Like
a kid in a sweet shop: the use of generative metaphor' April, 2006
Dunbar, Angela, 'Using
Metaphors with Coaching' in Bulletin of the Association for Coaching, October 2005
Lawley, James, 'Metaphors
of Organisation - Parts 1 & 2' in
Effective Consulting Vol. 1, No. 4, & No. 5, 2001
Skelton, Ned, 'Clean
Language in Sports Coaching' September
Tompkins, Penny & James Lawley, 'Coaching
for P.R.O.'s' in Coach the Coach, Feb.
Wilson, Carol, 'Metaphor
& Symbolic Modelling For Coaches' in
Coach the Coach
Issue 4, 2004
Books about metaphor
Kovecses, Zoltan, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The
University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Lawley, James & Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation
through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing
Company Press, 2000.
Morgan, Gareth, Images
of Organisation, Sage, 1986/1997.
Morgan, Gareth, Imaginization, Sage, 1997.
Ortony, Andrew (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge
University Press, 1993.