S2 E28

“Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”

Those words were written by Robert Frost, the great American poet. 

Contrary to popular belief, metaphors are not mere decorations. In fact, you could say that metaphors are the very substance of thought, or, as the cognitive scientist and comparative literature professor Douglas Hofstadter puts it, the core of cognition. James Geary, in his brilliant TED talk “Metaphorically Speaking” points out that we use about six metaphors a minute as we speak.

Since the aim of coaching is to help people expand their thinking and see new perspectives and opportunities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that metaphor is a key coaching tool. By exploring our ideas visually we can break out of old patterns that are no longer helpful. For instance, if a person says “I’m stuck in a rut”, they’re unwittingly using a metaphor, that is, without realising it. A rut is a deep narrow track left in soft ground by a wheel and goes back to the days when people travelled in carriages. Being stuck in a rut literally refers to a vehicle being unable to move forward, but metaphorically means being stuck in a boring or unpleasant situation. One of the things a coach does is reflect the client’s own language, specifically the words or phrases that are emotionally charged. 

So if a client of mine said that they were stuck in a rut I might simply respond. “So you feel like you’re stuck in a rut.” And then I might add “What does that mean to you, to be stuck in rut?” And just the process of activating that metaphor in the client’s mind can lead to new thinking. Think about it, what would you do if you were in a horse-drawn carriage that got stuck in a rut? Well you might think of moving. But which way, forwards or backwards? Or you might think, actually this isn’t the right metaphor and then come up with a different one.

About two years ago I discovered an interview with David Burns, a prominent American psychiatrist who was an early adopter of cognitive behavioural therapy back in the 1980s. In the interview, with Impact Theory host Tom Bilyeu, Dr. Burns shares an anecdote illustrating the immense power of a well-deployed metaphor.  He tells the story of a mother who suffered from anxiety because her daughter had had a serious injury while playing out in the street. Some boys had been given a pellet gun and they accidentally shot her daughter in the face. Although the mother wasn’t at fault, she spent years and years holding herself responsible. As a result she struggled with a lot of anxiety. 

Dr. Burns’ approach to this woman’s problem is counterintuitive. Rather than trying to convince her to feel better, he reframes her suffering in a positive way, that is, he changes how it is expressed or understood. He helps her realise that her depression is actually an expression of her love of her daughter and her desire to keep her safe. She even goes so far as to get a PhD in psychology in order to help her daughter cope. 

I can’t begin to do this story justice. So if you’re even remotely interested go check out the link in the transcript. You’ll find this anecdote starting at about minute 34.

Now here’s where the metaphor comes in. Sometimes we can think of our problems as something that can be turned on and off, like a light switch. But Burns suggests another metaphor, that of the dial, like a round dial on a radio to turn the volume up or down. What is so fascinating about the dial metaphor is that it allows us to get out of black and white, all or nothing thinking. The same sense of duty can make us either incredibly successful or chronically depressed, it all depends what level the dial is at.

For instance, I still struggle with crippling perfectionism. I love making this podcast, but I’m constantly having to cope with this voice in me that I’m boring, that if I was really at this I would have more downloads and followers. If I reframe this in a positive light, you could say that this just shows that I have high standards and want to do the best work possible. If I use the dial metaphor, rather than trying to turn my perfectionism off, I can turn it down from 100% to a more manageable level, say 15%. 

There’s a useful phrasal verb in English which is dial back and means reduce or make less extreme. So, my question to you is, what is it that you could be dialling back rather than switching off? Get in touch and share your thoughts with me on this issue by emailing me at sean@ethosenglish.com. Also, if you’re curious about the coaching process I’d be happy to set up a Zoom call to discuss it with you.

Before I go over today’s vocabulary, this is a reminder that this coming Saturday 10 June I’m hosting my second free workshop for EFL teachers whose first language isn’t English. This week we’ll be discussing how to foster critical thinking in the EFL classroom. Go to EthosEnglish.com to see a short video and to get your free ticket.


Now, here’s today’s vocabulary:

contrary to popular belief: used to say that something is true even though people believe the opposite

Contrary to popular belief, deaf people often take great pleasure in music.

mere: used to emphasise how small or unimportant something or someone is

She lost the election by a mere 20 votes.

be stuck in a rut: living or working in a situation that never changes, so that you feel bored

I was stuck in a rut and decided to look for a new job.

unwittingly: in a way that shows you do not know or realise something, synonym – unknowingly

Laura unwittingly threw away the winning lottery ticket.

an early adopter: a person or organisation that is among the first to buy or use a new product, system or idea

Business people were early adopters of mobile phones.

deploy: use something or someone, especially in an effective way

The government is deploying a new system to track air pollution.

be at fault: be responsible for something bad that’s happened 

The police said that the other driver was at fault.

counterintuitive: something that does not happen in the way you would expect it to

It may seem counterintuitive to open a shop in the middle of a recession.

reframe something: change the way something is expressed or considered

The CEO managed to reframe the company’s difficulties as an opportunity to diversify.

crippling: causing so much damage or harm that something no longer works or is no longer effective

Crippling shyness can seriously affect your work.

dial something back: reduce something or make it less extreme

The candidates have dialed back their attacks on each other, but they are still making their differences clear.

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