Symbols that Break Through; The Research

Coaching using metaphor expands the conversation in a creative, imaginative way.  Consider the words you’ve heard from clients; I carry the world on my shoulders, I’m between a rock and a hard place, I’m navigating, I can’t see, I’m spinning plates etc. These are examples of words clients use to describe their situation in terms of something else and are not actually their literal truth but instead are metaphors.  Typically, the client is not actually spinning plates, and they are not literally holding the world or navigating with a compass and a map, however their words hold a powerful message.  They are using language that illustrates their experience symbolically and when a coach listens for these cues, they help clients make observations that are emotionally detached and objective.  Drawing attention to the metaphor broadens the conversation to explore what it would be like to experience the situation differently and often offers transformative breakthroughs in their perspective.

As a coach, leader and organization development practitioner, I was very curious about what happens in these transformative coaching conversations and did focused research to learn more.  My research was specifically designed to learn about the client’s experience.  There had been some research explored from the perspective of what practitioners were observing in the conversation. I wanted to learn about individual’s specific lived experience to understand the essence of metaphor in this context. To do that, I interviewed ten people who had been coached and could recall that a metaphor was used in their coaching conversation.  In this research, metaphor was any symbol, object, story or image that generated new thinking from an old experience. Using a qualitative design, I began by exploring their experience with imagery.  I asked them to draw their experience of the coaching conversation and then tell about it.  I followed with open ended questions to deepen their exploration.  I then asked them to draw their experience of the metaphor used and expanded with open-ended questions to get clearer about the experience.  All ten Participants identified very individualized metaphors such as magic lenses, scuba shop, life is a journey, tug of war, tesla coil, rock, breeze, tea boy, adventure and sponge and bricks.  None of their metaphors were the same however several themes about their experience emerged.

Participants went through a cycle in which metaphor created a shift in awareness of their selves, their behaviors and their situations.  Their perspectives, emotions, and behaviors changed.  They began to change their way of being (how they lived, how relaxed they were and how they used their voice) and transformed their lives.  Their metaphors became emotional, verbal and/or physical symbols and these symbolic cues reminded them of the changes that they wanted to make.  For example one participant carried a rock with him until all his intended actions were complete.  The cycle was self generating in that the symbols then reinforced their awareness of behavior and kept their actions alive thereby generating ongoing chosen life changes.  For example, the participant, who used the rock continued to repurpose the rock when he had other big changes he wanted to make.

The coaching conversation allowed the metaphor to emerge and a new reality for the participants was constructed.  Coaches can use metaphors as an evocative tool to help clients achieve what they wish.  They can listen for clients to use symbols, stories and objects which describe the situation and then follow the metaphor to generate re-awareness and news ways of thinking about their life or the situation they are working on. Coaches can help clients consciously see situations imaginatively as something else to help them break through and achieve the changes they are striving for.


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