Did you know that we use about six metaphors per minute in the English language? Are you aware that our unconscious mind thinks and responds best to symbolic language i.e. metaphors? Did you know that all learning and change occurs at the unconscious level?
A metaphor is a story told with a purpose which allows us to bypass conscious resistance in order to make connections at a deeper level. By telling stories you engage the other person’s curiosity and thereby create the opportunity for direct dialogue with their unconscious mind.
Milton Erickson, a Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist who specialized in medical hypnosis and family therapy for over 60 years, was famous for his metaphorical approach through storytelling. He was renowned not only for his approach to the unconscious mind as creative and solution generating but also for making a large impact on the developers of NLP.
Milton was a master at using abstract and ambiguous language patterns to match his client’s experience by assisting his client in accessing unconscious resources in order to pace and lead his client’s behavior through a story.
Most of the time, an effective metaphor will result in the other person totally associating or connecting to the character or event in the story. In this sense, metaphors are effective for inducing and creating a trance-like state. When you induce trance, you are communicating directly to the unconscious mind.
Through the use of metaphors we have a huge opportunity to creatively affect change within others. Therefore becoming artistic in the use of metaphors can really make a difference in helping others to move forward. You are already using metaphors in your language and therefore unconsciously impacting others in ways you may not even be aware of. As previously stated, we use several metaphors per minute in our general language already. Becoming self-aware of the language we use and its impact on others is not only useful but important. NLP teaches us how to intentionally use metaphors and language patterns to create desired change and insights in others.
Language is the middle name in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). So in that sense, NLP is a linguistic way of communicating with others on a regular basis.
I have several metaphors I use with my coaching clients when I am trying to make a point. For example; I like to use the analogy of a hockey game in progress as a metaphor for perspectives work. The hockey player is in total fovial vision focused only on what is before him/her. The view is narrow and at this level, the game is fast moving, decisions are made quickly with no time to fully anticipate the impact. From a Coach’s view from the bench, the Coach is able to see a much broader perspective of the game. The game actually appears slower from this standpoint. The Coach is able to anticipate not only the player’s probable action but also the chain of reaction the play will cause. Now, imagine moving further out to high in the stands of the hockey arena. From this vantage you can really see what is going on in the bigger picture. The game really slows down and you can be much more objective than when you are right in the middle of the play as the player. Whenever I use this metaphor, clients can really remove themselves from a perspective they are holding when I ask them to become an observer in the stands.
In addition to having a toolkit of metaphors at the ready, designing a specific metaphor to address someone’s specific problem or issue is ideal.
Here are 4 steps to consider when designing a metaphor to use with others:
1. Define the person’s problem or issue
2. Determine the person’s desired outcome
3. Ask yourself: “What is this an example of?” You are looking for a story or metaphor that will get the other person from where they are now to their desired outcome without their conscious connection or awareness
4. Tell your metaphor
Milton Erickson was notorious for telling stories about his vegetable garden when working with weight loss clients. He would speak about how beautiful his tomatoes were and how the tomatoes knew exactly how to take in just the right amount of water, sun and nutrients from the soil in order to grow to just the right size and shape. His clients would hear these stories and sometimes become upset that Milton was using their therapy time to talk about his vegetable garden. However, over time the clients would start to lose weight and reach their goals.
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