Metaphors are Lint Catchers for the Brain

Shadow luz headsI have cats. Even though they are short-haired, they shed. I like to wear black pants (so slimming, you know). My small cat is pure white and my big cat has a white belly. Thus, renegade white hairs ALL OVER EVERYTHING, especially my black pants. So I have one of those sticky rolls of tape with a handle that you can use to de-lint yourself, and it works great. It picks up everything, even stuff I sometimes didn’t know was there.

To use a simile, a metaphor is like that for your brain. Allow me to explain. Our visual cortex is more well-developed than our auditory cortex. In other words, we more quickly and easily understand things in images than we do by parsing linear sentences. If you ask me how I am, and I tell you all day I have felt like I have my shoes on the wrong feet, you can connect immediately and much more powerfully (and empathically) than if I simply say I am a bit out of sorts. And, like that sticky tape which picks up everything, you get much more information than the simple statement “out of sorts” allows. Shoes on the wrong feet brings up a wealth of interesting images and sensations. It might include awkward, stumbling, uncomfortable, tight, irritating. In a coaching conversation, a myriad of directions to explore!

Because the right hemisphere of the brain thinks in pictures (as well as sounds, colors, smells and touch), I believe metaphors are one of the most amazing tools we have as coaches to integrate the two hemispheres of the brain. The right hemisphere is the side that brings to the brain what is new, but because it doesn’t have immediate access to symbolic language (words and sentences are the provence of the left hemisphere), this information is spread out all over, nebulous and unfocused and sometimes difficult to pick up, like cat hair on my pants. But when we grab an image that swims to the surface and name it (shoes on the wrong feet), we have accessed the left hemisphere’s power of focus and language without losing the right hemisphere’s subtlety and ability to know the hidden or nebulous aspects of the situation.

As coaches, we know that when a client can’t focus in on what is really going on, we can’t work with the issue. However, if we only focus in and reduce things to simple statements (out of sorts), we often miss the heart of the matter. Metaphors allow us to do both, by engaging both hemispheres of the brain in a powerful partnership. Through the image, we keep bringing pieces over from the right hemisphere, which knows everything but can’t articulate it or do much with it, to the left, which says “Ok, let’s really look at this.” Shadow Luz who meA good metaphor is a door into consciousness, and when my clients tell me “Oh, I am no good at metaphors,” or “I just don’t think that way,” I don’t accept it. I tell them we’re going to build the muscle, because it is key to understanding themselves. Everyone has the ability, we just need to activate it.


6 responses

  1. You are so right Ann. The right side of the brain has a language all it’s own. I like to use prompts that are visual so the right brain has something to grab a hold of. Once the image is there clients can usually elaborate. Sometimes when on a call I’ll have a client look around the room until their eye lands on something that symbolizes whatever it is we are talking about. I’ve also used very generic things that have lots of variety – like shoes or chairs or hats – What hat are you wearing when you…? If it were a shoe…? Way more fun in person to bring actual physical images or toys.

  2. Great article – and so true.
    I teach students to create metaphors initially by choosing and sticking with a theme. It seems to help them get started when they choose something with which they are familiar. Example: planting a garden, baking a cake, swimming in a lake, etc.
    (Baked a cake and left out an ingredient; baked a cake and put in tomatoes instead of apples; got all the ingredients out and forgot to turn the oven on, etc.) It’s just a way to get started until they come more easily and naturally.

    When I started coaching about 18 years ago, one of my goals was to learn how to create metaphors on the spot that conveyed the situation and were easily understood. I found that I had to practice constantly – some were lame, some not so pointed, some missed the mark. Then I realized that by starting with a theme, it got easier. After a while, they seemed to flow, and now I love using them without hesitation. Bottom line – it takes practice!

  3. Love it, although I’m looking for another metaphor (since lint is a shedding to be got rid of). What about a magnet, picking up scattered iron filings? Or a magnet under a sheet of paper creating a pattern out of the filings through its force fields?

  4. It’s funny how we discount our fluency in metaphor. Offering metaphors to a client feels like an unused muscle, but I create them effortlessly while being coached. Seems like cultivating situations where metaphors emerge, then noticing and building on them is where magic really happens.

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