Friday 26 March 2021

Working with metaphor

I am increasingly interested in the value of working with imagery and metaphor. In a recent supervision, for example, the coach I was supervising (let's say Sam as that was not the coach's name) was thinking about a particular client (whom we can call Alex, on the same basis). 

Sam wanted to think about how to support Alex's growth and development, following a very difficult time at work. Rather than get into the complexities of Alex's situation, I asked Sam to hold the questions she had in mind lightly, and think about a metaphor. Sam thought that might be difficult, but in fact one came quite quickly. It was of a chrysalis, with a butterfly struggling to emerge from it. The environment is adding to the difficulty; leaves or twigs or something making it all harder. And it has been pouring with rain, so everything is wet.  The sun needs to come out.

We played with this quite a lot and added the wind as another potential help in the environment, as it might dry things more quickly.  I invited Sam to consider the wind and the sun as elements over which Alex might have some agency, and that proved a helpful line of thought.

Finally I asked what new story might be coming to mind, and Sam answered: Even aware of the fragility and vulnerability of the butterfly, Alex takes off.   Sam said she was finished at this point so we moved on to review the process.

Sam had found it 'really lovely – refreshing.' Sam now had a much clearer sense of how she wanted to work with Alex in their next meeting, and was able to hold that lightly.  And Sam was clear that the metaphor, and the way we developed the story together, had brought all the salient elements to the fore, far more quickly than just talking about the situation would have done.

And that strikes me as fairly typical of how metaphors work. Sam's choice of metaphor, and then the consideration of how the environment might help or hinder, and where Alex's agency lay, all cut straight to the heart of her thinking about this relationship.

So now I am wondering how to take that further.  I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently learning a poem a week. And poetry, of course, is rich in metaphor. So I am considering how to use more poetry in my work. And in discussing that with my supervisor, she reminded me of the work of David Whyte, a poet who uses poetry in organisational contexts.

So I am not quite sure where this will take me: I am thinking of running a workshop on Poetry and Leadership, starting with some reflections by me on a couple of improbable poems that I think (by analogy) might stir up interesting and valuable insights in leaders (or coaches or leaders), and followed by a small group discussions of the possibilities of this idea.  Let me know if you are interested.

And in the meantime, here's David Whyte:


With thanks to Bankim Desai for sharing butterfly photos on Unsplash

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