To Change the Conversation, Change the Metaphor

Christopher Witt —  February 20, 2014

Change the ConversationI’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.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to To Change the Conversation, Change the Metaphor

  1. Thank you for calling out the “war” metaphor. As a metaphor, not only is it out-of-step with how many contemporary Americans feel, it’s also overused, mis-applied, and usually inappropriate and unhealthy to the person or organiza it. For example: Does a patient with a terminal illness benefit through a metaphorical war against the disease? Do we want our high school sport teams “doing battle” with each other for the championship? Is a “war on drugs” better than figuring out how create more sustainable economies and communities?

    And those other metaphors of implied violence: What If we “sow respect” instead of enacting zero-tolerance rules, or re-frame political stances from “tough on/soft on crime” to “I believe in punishment/I believe in reform?”

    ’nuff said. Probably time to go start my own blog.!

    • Ann,

      Thanks for your insightful response and for pointing out the violence that runs throughout the metaphor of warfare.

      As a person who has had cancer and lived to talk about it (for 40 years now), I confess that I’ve never liked it when people speak of fighting cancer or of beating it or of winning the war with it. For one thing, it makes those who die of cancer seem like losers — after all they lost their battle with cancer.

      And yes, you should start a blog of your own.