Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"
Segment #5: The Impact of Metaphor
Part II: Therapeutic Metaphor (Story Telling)
Once you've reframed the issues that, based on their underlying values, matter to you, you might, when talking to people, borrow a useful technique from the field of psychotherapy. The technique is called "therapeutic metaphor" and employs the age old power of story-telling in helping people to see things differently and thereby gain insight about their beliefs and values.
To explain further we offer the following story. The legendary psychiatrist Milton Erickson worked at a mental hospital in Worcester MA during the 1930's. One of his patients spoke nothing but word salad (aka goobldygook.) He and some staff members recorded the patient's word salad for a period of several weeks. Erickson then taught himself to speak word salad with the same syntax and vocal structure as the patient. Then, after responding to the patient's word salad with his own word salad on several occasions, the patient suddenly said in clear English: "It's about time I found somebody who could talk right" and thereafter never spoke word salad again. Erickson's point in relating this story was that if you want to help a person change his/her behavior you must "first get on their frequency." You have to make it clear that you understand where they are coming from and can be present there with them. The essence is: "pace before you lead."
To build a therapeutic metaphor (a story):
- Ask yourself "What is the situation or problem?"
- Create an analogy to the situation. ("What is this situation like?" Analogy connects something you don't know about to something you do know about. It does this by paying attention to 'function', not 'form'. What are the functional attributes of what you don't know about, and where in your experience do you understand those functions?)
- Visualize the answer. (Come up with a picture that would answer the question "What is this situation like?")
- Use the picture as a reference point for making up your metaphor in the story.
- Select an outcome and visualize a picture of that.
- Run the storyline from the reference picture to the outcome picture.
- Tell the story, dwelling on details for the experiences that you want to elicit.
Here are some therapeutic metaphor (story) examples.
You are working with someone who is in need of more tenderness and compassion toward others, you could mention a friend whose five year old son didn't like dogs, and would often throw stones at them. After scolding the boy several times and asking him "How would you like it if ..." type questions, the father decided to take a different approach to the problem. He got the boy a puppy for his sixth birthday together with a booklet on dog training and care. The boy was captured with the delight of playing with the puppy and intrigued with housebreaking and training his pet to go places with him. Happily and coincidentally, there were no further episodes of the boy disliking or mistreating other dogs.
You are working with someone who is in severe conflict with his wife. You tell a story about a man from another country who was diagnosed with a terminal disease. After consulting a number of doctors, all of whom confirmed the diagnosis, he went through the normal process of denial. Then, with the help of his friends and family, he slowly accepted the fact that he was only going to live for a few more months. At this point something amazing happened to him. He just quit doing things that didn't seem to matter and he started spending his time on those things that seemed important. He started working on projects with his kids, he stopped arguing with his mother, and when someone cut him off in traffic or did something that would have normally upset him, he just let it go. It seemed like such a waste of time an effort to be bothered by things that were, when all was said and done, just trivial. After a couple of months, one of his friends urged him to get some more opinions about his condition. So he went to the USA and consulted another set of doctors. Soon after, he heard from them that they had a different diagnosis: he had a rare form of a curable disease. When the man heard this, he broke down and cried -- because he was afraid that his life would go back to the way it used to be.
You are talking to someone who is demonizing all Moslems. You tell a story that never mentions anything at all about Islam or the middle east. Instead you could talk about a Catholic friend of your father's who years ago told how his younger sister came home from her second year of college and introduced a fiancee who was a Buddhist exchange student from Thailand. This caused quite a severe shock to the family with fears of interracial marriage problems and their daughter not fitting in anywhere and possibly even leaving the country and living in Asia. The fiancee taught at the university where he met my father’s friend’s sister. As things turned out, the situation led to a happy marriage and integration of cultures with wonderful grandchildren who spoke two languages. Everyone in the family visited the fiancee's home village in Thailand and the grandchildren often spent their summers there.
Because it's the story line that creates the change in the listener, not the outcome of the story, there need to be sufficient details to elicit an emotional change in the listener, which then leads to a perceptual or attitude change, which in turn is followed by a behavior change.
It helps to get dramatic movement in your stories. This holds the listener's attention. You do this by presupposing a change that will happen in the story and, if you can, by creating mystery or creating suspense. (Note that this is how successful newspaper editorial and New Yorker cartoons work, too.)
- Add shock, surprise, or humor to the story, especially at the end.
- Presuppose a change that will happen: "Little did Joe realize when he got up that morning how different a person he would be at the end of the day."
- To create mystery, introduce the presupposition that the character knows something that the listener doesn't know. "It was obvious to Jim who the culprit was."
- To create suspense, let the listener know something that the protagonist in the story doesn't know. "Ed never suspected he was going to fall in love that day."
- Use similes. For example life (or a given situation) is like a coat hanger in that....... It's like running shoes in that....... It's like a painting, like world politics, like biology, like gardening, like photography, like a wagon, like a wheel, like shipping, like nuclear physics etc. etc. etc.
Once you have created the analogical environment, the listener will make the necessary connections to make sense of it. The human mind must do that, it cannot stop itself from doing it. Note that, if an analogy violates a closely held belief, it won't 'take', so you are not in danger of doing any damage or causing new problems.
Some of the qualities which represent underlying positive values around which therapeutic metaphors (stories) might be built include those listed below:
Acceptance - Accuracy - Appreciation - Balance - Beauty - Caring - Cheerfulness - Communication - Compassion - Concentration - Contentment - Cooperation - Courage - Creativity - Delight - Determination - Discipline - Easiness- Empowerment - Enthusiasm - Far Sightedness - Flexibility - Forgiveness - Freedom - Generosity - Gentleness - Good Wishes - Happiness - Harmony - Healing - Honest - Humility - Humor - Insight - Integrity - Introspection - Introversion - Knowledge - Lightness - Love - Maturity - Openness - Patience - Peace - Politeness - Positivity - Power - Purpose - Respect - Royalty - Self-Confidence - Self-Respect - Serenity - Silence - Simplicity - Spontaneity- Stability - Strength - Tirelessness - Tolerance - Transformation - Trust- Truth - Understanding - Wisdom - Wonder.
With a little practice, creating stories that frame the values you want to support is enjoyably simple. You can find material to adapt in books, magazines, Readers Digest, newspapers, movies, everyday life, and even TV.
- What stories that someone told you, or that you've read, stick most strongly in your memory?
- How have those stories influenced you?
- Can you think of a problem situation where the use of a story might be useful in helping to find a resolution to the issue?
- What strikes you most from reading this article?