Using metaphors for better coaching conversations

Metaphors and analogies are the fuel and fire of thinking, according to a brilliant new book by Douglas Hofstadter. Visual Explorer and Metaphor Explorer are based in this insight. So I am pleased to have in front of me an insightful new doctoral dissertation on the use of metaphor in coaching conversations. Kristen Truman-Allen, founder of PULP Coaching, shares a summary of her dissertation (done at Fielding Graduate University) below–thanks Kristen!

quoteCoaches can listen for clients to use symbols, stories and objects which describe their situation and then follow those metaphors to generate news ways of thinking about their life and the situations they are working on.


“The awareness and use of metaphor can expand the coaching conversation in creative, imaginative ways.  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. 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.  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 powerful messages.  They are using language that illustrates their experience figuratively and symbolically, and when a coach listens for these cues, they can help clients make observations that are emotionally detached and objective. Drawing attention to the metaphors 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 research to learn more.  My research was designed to learn about the client’s experience.  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 their experience of the metaphors they used. I followed with open-ended questions to deepen their exploration. All ten participants identified very individualized metaphors: magic lenses, scuba shop, life is a journey, tug of war, tesla coil, rock, breeze, tea boy, adventure, and sponge and bricks.

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 in some ways 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. The participant with 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 evocative tools to help clients achieve what they wish. Coaches can listen for clients to use symbols, stories and objects which describe their situation and then follow those metaphors to generate news ways of thinking about their life and the situations they are working on. Coaches can help clients consciously see situations imaginatively to help them break through and achieve the changes they are striving for.”

Kristen Truman-Allen PhD, RN, PCC
PULP Coaching

About Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth

Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth are Senior Fellows at the Center for Creative Leadership. Many thanks to Steadman Harrison III, CEO of GO, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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