My father, who was a psychiatrist, was a big believer in using metaphors in therapy. He was interested in dreams because he believed they can serve as metaphors for issues that people are trying to work out in their waking life. And he believed that if he as the therapist could introduce the right metaphor at the right time in a therapy session, he had a chance of helping someone see their problems more clearly, and perhaps enable them to change. In the movies, the big breakthrough moments in therapy occur when the patient finally forgives himself and gets a hug from his therapist. (examples: Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting) In the stories that I heard at home, a breakthrough was more likely to occur when my father was able to draw a verbal picture for the patient that enabled the patient to understand his situation.
Metaphors are powerful tools in law as well. Often there is nothing that can make a legal brief or an oral argument, or even a cross-examination, more persuasive, or at least memorable, than the use of an image that sticks in the reader's mind. An image may be memorable based on its concreteness or whimsicality or universality or perhaps its graphic nature; what makes a metaphorical image persuasive is its aptness to the legal or factual situation one is attempting to understand. The illustration above is an example of a whimsical image. I found it on a website (wakefelderman) containing a whole series of nonsensical illustrations for the same caption. It doesn't mean anything, however, unless you can somehow analogize the illustration to some real situation. In other words, saying "it's a metaphor" doesn't mean anything unless you can answer the question, "what is it a metaphor for?"
I try to bring metaphors into the mediation room whenever I can. For one reason, it is sometimes good to talk about anything other than the conflict the parties are having as a way of establishing rapport, and enabling people to see each other as human beings instead of just as adversaries in a dispute. But more importantly, people may not be able to appreciate or understand how to resolve the conflict in which they find themselves, unless they can visualize an analogous situation. Thus, as can be seen on my blog, I like to talk about game shows, or movies, or sports, or politics, or history, because these all provide rich metaphors that may assist people in viewing the dispute in which their personal feelings are so entangled, more objectively or more truthfully. The challenge is to design metaphors that are both memorable and apt to each party's situation. But that is also the opportunity for creativity on the mediator's part, and for me, part of the fun of doing this kind of work.
For more extended and academic treatments of this topic, see this article by Suzette Elgin, or this one by John Haynes or yet another by Thomas Smith. (It's always nice to know that some topic you've been thinking about has already been discussed exhaustively by others.) The Elgin article talks about problems that can occur when two sides in a dispute are relying on conflicting metaphors. Using Elgin's stereotypical example, a man may view life as a football game, while a woman may view life as a schoolroom. Obviously, different rules and results apply in each situation. In such a case, the mediator may have to find a new metaphor that both parties can relate to.
Haynes views the conflict resolution process itself in a metaphorical way. One way of looking at resolving conflict is as a war; another is as a journey. The journey metaphor is probably a more productive way of encrouaging the parties to view the process, but the war metaphor may have its place at times. Finally, Smith discusses the differences between "guiding metaphors" and "operating metaphors," and gives examples of how to recognize and use them. This last article is more about using and extending the parties' own metaphorical ways of understanding their dispute, than about the mediator introducing a new way of looking at the problem.
11/16/09: Thanks to Stephanie West Allen for the link. She is a strong advocate of the use of metaphors.
11/24/09: Thanks to Sandra Upchurch for another link. I'm glad my post was thought-provoking.
12/3/09: Thanks to Diane Levin for the Twitter link.
(light bulb illustration from Ollie Saward)