I got this nice piece in a newsletter from the Narrative Lab, so I thought I would share it as food for thought!

Metaphors are all around us. Often, we don’t even notice them, but they have a profound effect on how we see and make sense of the world. According to James Geary in his book “I is an other”, we utter as many as six metaphors per minute, or around one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words. Does that sound like a lot?

Have a look at this extract of a recent newspaper article about the economic crisis. The metaphors are italicised.

“Private sector business activity shrank in the eurozone for the first time in two years last month as new orders dried up, stoking fears that the economy could be heading back into recession, surveys showed on Wednesday.

downturn that began in smaller members of the 17-nation bloc has hit the core and survey compiler Markit said latest figures suggest the region’s economy will contract in the fourth quarter unless business and consumer confidence rallies.

“We can’t rule out the possibility of recession in the coming quarters. Combined with the globalslowdown you have the main growth engine of the eurozone economy, Germany, stuttering,” said Jeavon Lolay, head of global research at Lloyds Banking Group.

European concerns about flagging activity were mirrored in India’s service sector, which also shrankin September as new business tapered off, two days after a global manufacturing survey showed a first drop in output since June 2009 though firms still took on more workers.”

159 words: 16 metaphors – that is 1 metaphor for almost every 10 words. Test this theory yourself the next time you’re in conversation with someone. Once you become attuned to listening for metaphors, you will find yourself inundated by them.

Why is this important? Human beings use metaphors to make sense of the world and the complex problems they face. Therefore, if we listen to the metaphors people use in describing a phenomenon, we can find out what their true perspective or mindset is regarding that phenomenon. For example, a commonly used metaphor theme is equating time to money: We spend time, waste time, save time. We even say: Time is money! What does this “carrying across” of the attributes of money onto time say about how we view time?

We obviously see it as something of value, but also as something that is not infinite, that has limits and can run out. It’s a resource that needs to be managed properly. Time is seen as a form of currency i.e. if I give my time, I expect something in return.

Similarly, we can infer how people perceive other things like their customers, a certain product or other things, such as culture or safety. In a recent project we took a group of around 1600 people through our Metaphorology process (there’s more information about it in the product section of this newsletter). Our aim was to find out, through extracting metaphors, what their perceptions of the organisation’s safety culture were. People would argue that what we found were actually similes, but as Geary says: “simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up”. Some examples of what we found include: safety is like breathing; safety is like smoke and mirrors; safety is like a paper tsunami; safety is like a banana peel – if you discard it, or ignore it, you could slip on it and kill yourself.

These metaphors are rich pictures, windows into the perceptions that people really hold about safety, beyond the corporate script, or what everyone knows to be the right answer.

The question is, so what? What do you do with the insights you gained from the metaphors? In our experience we often find two kinds of pervasive metaphors. Base or root metaphors that are unhelpful and dominant, and subjugated positive metaphors that represent the alternative story that already exists but is suppressed. Once these two types of metaphors have surfaced and are out in the open, initiatives can be designed to strengthen or amplify the positive metaphors and weaken the negative ones. Often these initiatives involve the use of story and conversation.

So next time you want to know what someone really thinks about something, listen out for the metaphors they use to describe it. It’ll probably be an enlightening experience.

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