First published in New Learning Issue 9, Spring 2001

Conversing with Metaphor

by Penny Tompkins

Have you ever been speaking to a student and they say, "You know, it's like ..."? Inevitably you have, because we all use metaphors to describe our experience. Whatever they put in the "...", will be a metaphor, and will have significant meaning for them. [Note 1]

Some teacher's disregard student's metaphors and consider them 'throwaway' comments. But many teachers with exquisite rapport skills have learned to listen very carefully to their student's metaphors so that they can converse within the logic or 'frame' of the metaphor.

These teachers intuitively know that metaphor is not an occasional foray into the world of figurative language, but the fundamental basis for everyday cognition. George Lakoff and Mark 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 metaphor. [Note 2]

Special questions are needed to explore a student's metaphors without introducing your own. These questions are called Clean Language, and are designed to respect and acknowledge the student's experience by using their exact words.

Recently I was working with a student who was having great difficulty trying to describe why making decisions was such a problem for her (perhaps she couldn't decide on the right words!).

"And, making decisions is like what?" I enquired.

She thought for a moment and replied,

"You know, it's like going to the dentist. I'm in the waiting room and I'm dreading going in."

To this very rich description of her experience I simply replied,

"And when you're in the dentist's waiting room, is there anything else about dreading going in?" (being careful to use her exact words).

I could tell she was deep inside her metaphor by the amount of time she took to answer and in the way she finally said,

"I really need courage."

"And what kind of courage is that courage?" was my next question.

"A courage that will help me go though it rather than delay any longer." [Note 3]

"And when courage will help you go through it, where is that courage?"

She touched her chest with her right hand and said

"Inside me."

"And whereabouts inside you is that courage?"

"In my heart"

I continued asking Clean Language questions of her metaphor so that she could further develop her resource of courage. At the end of our time together she said, "If you had told me when we started that a comment like "going to the dentist" could link so directly with my decision making, I wouldn't have believed it. In fact, you couldn't have told me, I had to experience it for myself."

In the above example, I used five of the nine basic Clean Language questions [Note 4]:

"And ... is like what?"
"And when ... is there anything else about ...?"
"And what kind of ... is that ...?"
"And when ... where is that ...?"
"And whereabouts ...?"

Conversing within a student's metaphor is the symbolic equivalent of physical matching and mirroring -- except it acknowledges the student at a higher level. Rather than honouring how they move in the world, you are honouring how they give meaning to their experience. Try it, and see for yourself!


1. A simile is just a metaphor that is labelled a metaphor -- by 'like' for example.

2. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.158.

3. Notice the subtle shift in the student's metaphor from "going to" to "going through".

4. For the remaining four basic questions, see the other articles on this site about Symbolic Modelling and David Grove's Clean Language.

Penny Tompkins is an NLP psychotherapist and supervisor registered with the UKCP and certified NLP trainer. She is co-author of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling.

New Learning, The Journal of the NLP Education Network.

Other education related articles by Penny Tompkins (and James Lawley) on this site:

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