I’ve recently been talking to a consultant from CRA Inc., a consulting firm outside Philadelphia. Because I liked her approach, I checked out the company’s website where I came upon a line that sums up much of my own thinking:
“Change the conversation and you change the outcomes.”
If you accept that premise, as I do, the question then becomes, “How do you change the conversation?”
In speechwriting/communications circles, the typically answer is, you change the “frame” that people use or you “reframe” the way they look at the issue.
I prefer to talk about changing the metaphors we use.
A metaphor isn’t just a figure of speech: a word or phrase for one thing that refers to something else in order to suggest similarities. “All the world’s a stage.”
A metaphor is a way of structuring the way we think.
It’s a conceptual framework that shapes and gives meaning to our experiences, perceptions, and thoughts.
For example, one of the dominant metaphors for business these days is war.
If waging war is our metaphor for doing business — whether or not we state it so baldly — we’ll think and speak in terms of enemies and allies, of threats and opportunities, of defending or attacking, of advancing or retreating. We may talk about rallying the troops, making a killing, or laying waste to the opposition.
The metaphor we use defines the terms of our conversation. We may, for example, name different competitors (is it company x or company y?), but we’ll agree that the competition is our opponent, maybe even our enemy.
To change the conversation, we first have to become aware of the metaphor that is shaping the way we think and speak. Then we can change the metaphor, if only temporarily or as an experiment.
So in this case, we might ask ourselves, if conducting business isn’t waging war, what is it?
What if, for example, running a business is like gardening? What if it involves finding the right plot of earth, preparing the soil, planting good seed, providing water and fertilizer in due season, weeding, cooperating with nature and the environment, being patient, reaping more than was sown?
Of what if running a business is like going on a road trip or fly fishing or a making a quilt or raising a kid or building a house?
My point is not that one metaphor is better than another, but that the metaphors we (unconsciously) use limit our thinking and define the terms of our conversation.
If we want to change the conversation we have with others (and with ourselves), we may need to change the metaphors we use.