Facilitator Journal | Issue #0442, May 4, 2010
I've often thought that if a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the value of a picture painted in your mind with only a few words? This week we explore the concept of metaphor as a powerful group process
tool for facilitators. In Changing
Figures of Thought we explore the six steps of generative metaphor development and some
keys to helping groups redefine their metaphors to better serve their
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Figures of Thought
How Generative Metaphors Uncover
The exploration and management of Metaphor is a powerful group
process tool for facilitators as agents of change. Whether you're engaged
in facilitating experiential learning, problem-solving, strategic planning,
or change management, everyone is operating within a given set of metaphors
or mental models that define their reality. From this perspective, one
approach to tapping into higher individual and group potentials can occur
by facilitating the change of one's metaphors.
First, let's take a quick look at the definition of "metaphor"
just so we're on the same page.
Metaphor: 1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase
that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus
making an implicit comparison, as in “a sea of troubles” or “All the world's
a stage” (Shakespeare). 2. One thing conceived as representing another;
a symbol, e.g., “The ship plows the sea, or ``All the world's a stage.''
The second definition
best fits our purposes here where a metaphor can be considered a "figure
of thought." Because we think in images, helping people become conscious
of the images (metaphors) that best represent their collective experience
can be very revealing and empowering. This is true because our images
define the boundaries of our experience, filtering and allowing in only
a subset of all available information. Changing our images or metaphors,
changes our filtering system and hence our experience.
So by facilitating the development of new images that generate new potential,
we usher in "generative metaphors."
Here is an example provided by Johan Hovelynck of the development of generative
A few years ago
I gave two friends of mine a hand finishing the electric wiring in their
house. For this purpose long and narrow plastic pipes had been laid
through the brick walls while constructing years earlier. Every single
one of these pipes contained a string, that would allow us now to pull
the wiring through. Unfortunately, one of these strings had been pulled
by accident and left us with a 8m long curved pipe without a means to
pull the electric wire. We first tried to just push it through, but
the wire wasn’t rigid enough to make that work. So we reinforced it
with wire and tried again. It lasted a while before we got frustrated
with this strategy, realizing it wouldn’t work despite efforts to reinforce
the wire with all sorts of things. Amidst the frustration came the idea
- first as a joke - to flush rather than push the wire. Water! From
‘water’ our thinking shifted to ‘air’, and only a few minutes later
we had tied a tiny piece of fabric to a sewing thread and sucked it
all the way through the pipe with the vacuum cleaner. The wire followed.
Sometimes it pays off to take jokes seriously... The original set-up
being a string to pull, our initial image had been one of pulling and
pushing: our minds were set on ‘mechanics’. As it became increasingly
clear that our mechanical thinking didn’t allow us to solve our problem,
we accommodated ‘hydraulic’ and ‘pneumatic’ metaphors. All of a sudden
it became easy: the point was in our problem-setting rather than in
in his book, Generative metaphor: a perspective on problem setting
in social policy, describes the process of metaphor development
in different stages that are easily recognizable in the above story.
Immersion in the Experience. A first important phase
consists of people’s immersion in the experience. We were pushing and
pulling wires with different methods. Despite our getting better at pulling
and pushing, the feeling grew that this would not work.
Triggering the Generative Metaphor. In the midst of this,
the generative image was triggered: sucking. We stopped looking at our
problem as if it were a mechanical one, and re-imagined it as a pneumatic
Unarticulated Sense of Similarity. It seems important
to notice that, at first, we didn’t have a precise idea of where to go
with this idea, but we somehow felt it could apply to our situation. Schön
called this ‘an unarticulated sense of similarity’.
Naming and Framing. An immediate consequence of this
new perspective was a change of vocabulary: we ‘reframed and renamed’.
We didn’t talk about strength, length and rigidity anymore, but about
weight and volume.
Explicit Account of Similarities: "Mapping." Only then, Schön points out, follows ‘an explicit account of similarities’:
we ‘mapped’ how the image of sucking would apply to a situation that until
then we had looked at as one that needed pulling or pushing.
New Solutions. The result was a new approach, and a solution.
Jokes often carry new metaphors. In the story above, the image
that eventually led to the solution was first presented as a joke. The
"flushing" idea wasn't meant seriously. It was an attempt to
lighten things while feeling stuck. Jokes often carry new metaphors: after
all the point of a joke is an interruption of the expected line of thought.
If the new image is carried further into task strategies however, it tends
to open up new options.
Leave the problem. Another way to cope with growing frustration
is to take a break. Here again it seems that this interruption is a chance
to break with the line of thought the group is getting stuck in as well
as with the frustration itself: generative metaphors seem to regularly
come up right after breaks.
Metaphors hold possibilities and restrictions. As group members
enact their images, they may get stuck in the situation they created.
Help them find an image that depicts their dilemma, then a new one that
might serve them better.
"Stuckness" as an entry to metaphor change. When people
are stuck, they may be more receptive to seeing things differently or
to intervention by the facilitator to help them explore new perspectives.
Therefore, it's important for facilitators to be sensitive to "stuckness"
indicators which might include: disengagement, silences, repetition of
events or conversations that don't offer a solution, facial expressions,
sighs, changes in voice sound, etc.
Add Your Comments
How might you use generative metaphors in your work with groups or in
your own life situations this week? Please click on the Add Your Comments link above and share your thoughts, stories, and experiences. I'd love to hear from you!
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