Metaphor is a form of figurative language, often described as facilitating the understanding of one thing in terms of another. In the comparison between two seemingly dissimilar concepts, the meaning of the first is carried over to help illuminate the second. Metaphors are valuable tools in the counseling process because they create structure, explain ideas, evoke emotion, and influence attitudes.
Metaphor and Counseling
In counseling, metaphors may be generated by the counselor or the client.
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Counselors use metaphors to interpret or clarify a client’s experience, reflect feelings, organize previous topics, or explain a course of action. Some have argued that metaphor is an effective way to confront clients due to its indirect nature. Social psychologists have demonstrated that metaphor can be an effective tool in persuasion, which is in keeping with a social influence model of the counseling process. Novel metaphors can make an idea or topic more memorable to the client.
Clients may use metaphors to express emotions or experiences that they have no other way of describing. Using metaphors, clients can frame an idea in a way that they believe will be understood, integrating what is complex, and highlighting salient aspects of an experience. Indeed, some would argue that metaphors are the only way to fully express certain abstract and amorphous inner experiences.
Working with Metaphors
A single metaphor can be as simple as three words, or involve an entire story. It may only arise at one point, or may be extended throughout the course of treatment. The metaphor can also be collaborative, with both counselor and client expanding and refining it over time. In a simple example, a client might describe a relationship this way: “It’s like I’m the bank and all I’m doing is cashing checks.” Over time, the counselor may ask if there are any deposits being made, and progress may be measured within the framework of the metaphor.
The use of a novel or exaggerated metaphor can often elicit strong visual images that help to make an issue more memorable. The oft used “When are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” is a good example; the visual image helps convey the idea of importance. Metaphors may also be more effective when the content includes something of personal interest to the listener.
The frequency of metaphor use appears to vary across counselors, clients, and sessions, and there are individual differences in the ability to develop and comprehend metaphors. The aptness and salience of metaphors appears to be more important than how often they are used. It appears that metaphors that are generated within the context of unique counseling relationships may be most effective.
Some authors have expressed concern about the vagueness of figurative language, and the possibility that it hinders true communication. Research involving the accuracy of client or therapist understanding of metaphors has not yielded any conclusive answers, but it would seem wise for counselors to be aware of these concerns.
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lenrow, P. (1966). Uses of metaphor in facilitating constructive behavior change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, 145-148.
- Siegelman, E. Y. (1990). Metaphor and meaning in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.