Saturday, May 13, 2017

The History of Metaphor in Change Work

For as long as humans have had speech, we've been drawn to stories. Story-tellers and bards were honored and respected, their tales and poems used to teach, explain, and/or entertain. Harvard Business School leadership guru John Kotter said,
Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best – and change – from hearing stories that strike a chord within us... Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves.
You know from personal experience how some stories have affected you, changed your attitude, inspired you, provided hope. So the time-honored therapy tradition to use stories for healing is no surprise. A therapeutic metaphor can help clients gain the personal resources and enhanced world model they need to be able to handle their problems. Typically, as in the general history of storytelling, the therapist decides what story or metaphor will have the greatest effect.

There's also a growing interest in listening for a client's metaphor and running with it, while still staying alert to a direction that might resolve the problem. I used this more client-centered approach with a client who said she always felt "like the new kid on the block" when with her colleagues. I entered her metaphor by saying, "OK, I'm here with you. You've just moved in, and you're the new kid. What's that like? What are the other kids doing? How do they treat you? What are some ways you can get them to include you?" Notice how, even though we were both in the client's metaphor, the form of my questions kept me in charge of what direction to take. I was eager to find a useful outcome, and we did find one when she said, "They want to play with some of my cool toys!" She was then able to recognize "cool toys" in her current repertoire that helped her feel more comfortable with colleagues.

More recently, I explored symbolic modeling. Instead of the coach determining the direction of clients' metaphors, open-ended questions preserve clients' terminology and facilitate their self-discovery and self-development: "And being like a butterfly is for you...?" "And when does (your words)....?" "And then....?" "And just before that....?" The facilitator's questions are called "clean language," meaning they're not compromised by left-brain theories of where to take the session; the questions typically follow the client's lead.

Symbolic modeling theory has a formal structure, however, so the emphasis still leans toward tools the helper brings, which keeps the left-brain processes in gear. In the past few years I've moved into a more right-brain use of metaphor where I follow the client's lead, trusting that wherever we go will lead to a healing place.


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