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METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING: How metaphors help us cope in organizations

We all do it.

We travel through life and a plethora of situations, sometimes trying to deal with things by relating our circumstances to a metaphor. What is a metaphor, really? According to, a metaphor is:

"...a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which

it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “The world is a stage.”

Clearly, life isn't literally a stage, but we may feel like it is at times. How often have you been in a meeting, interview, or the biggest presentation of your life- and you truly believed you were "on stage"? We simply look for ways to express and define what we see and feel by putting it into some type of tangible structure.

A second definition defines this deliciously conceptual word as:

"...something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else;

emblem; symbol."

We find solace many times in clinging to something symbolic of our state of being. One might equate feeling uncomfortable in a group setting as "being in a fish bowl" or even being the "fish out of water". I personally like to use metaphors to help people think about how they can cope.

Metaphors can be used in a very positive way to help people and organizations shift focus from a current state, to a more ideal scenario. For example, if I am coaching a leader on how to be an intentional listener when meeting with employees, we might use a present as a metaphor.

Why a present? How would a present help?

So that the leader can be reminded to be "fully present", instead of being preoccupied with emails and phone calls. The leader can also offer the "gift" of listening, which, for most of us who have experienced an inattentive leader- well, you get the point. Going as far as obtaining a tangible reminder- like an actual gift box, or a picture of a present placed strategically at a workstation- can be powerful.

Ultimately, metaphors can be used as a tool to:

  • refocus a situation so it can be perceived differently

  • provide a tangible picture that acts as a reminder to modify behavior

  • help people hold others accountable to a vision or mission

  • drive the completion of a goal

How are you using metaphors today? Do you have a symbol of where you are going and what you are doing? Please share your insights and experiences with us!

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