Lakoff on Metaphor: Rethinking how we Frame and Unpack Complex Problems

Our critical thinking series continues in the language space, focusing now on perhaps the most powerful tool of all: the metaphor.

Like the words and grammar of language itself, metaphor is a crucial, foundational aspect of effective communication, and it’s one we tend to take for granted.

Metaphor is a way to create common ground. It pulls from what is ultimately shared or sharable human experience. And it serves us well not only as a literary device, but also as a versatile, robust element of our cognitive thought processes. We use metaphorical frames when we think, when we speak, and importantly, when we collaborate. And because of their versatile reach to bridge our thinking across diverse subject areas, they may well emerge as a new approach for grappling with problem complexity.

To explore these possibilities, let’s start with a working definition:

Metaphor is a mental/linguistic technique that helps us understand a complex concept by relating it to our more concrete, observable experiences; by comparing two discrete ideas, we expose similarities and can infer logical relationships.

While we employ metaphors frequently in everyday speech, the mechanics of the technique often remain a mystery. Metaphors have the power to clarify and enlighten, but we seldom use them intentionally to make a point, or work to find ways to leverage their full potential.

In “The Metaphors We Live By” (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson lay down a rigorous argument for why metaphors matter, laced with interesting and compelling examples. They build on Wittgenstein’s concern (from a half a century earlier) that academics, philosophers and scientists have tended to talk past one another, speaking from their own paradigms and being generally unwilling to recognize – let alone embrace – frameworks in use among other camps.

Some examples are in order.

First, let’s introduce several commonly used cultural metaphors that are core to our Western way of thinking. I’ll state the metaphor then I’ll provide some related ideas that might flow from it:

“Time is Money” – how do you spend your time? – I’ve invested lots of energy on that project – I can’t waste any more time on that
“Organizational Politics is War” – he defended the point – her criticisms were on target – his ideas were shot down – let’s develop a plan of attack
“Public Education is a Factory” – is the system working? do we need common curriculum standards to ensure compliance and quality? – are we forcing students to fail when they don’t match a specification or comply with schedule, as if they were defective parts?

Clearly, our history flows deeply through our culture and our language.

Sometimes using more than one metaphor to analyze the same abstract concept is useful. Per Lakoff, when held up side by side, the various metaphorical comparisons may not be consistent because they describe different aspects, but to be effective, metaphors should be coherent, that is, without spawning conflicting views.

Consider these examples:

“Problems are Puzzles” – we need to take it apart – how do the pieces fit?
“Problems are Journeys” – we’re on the wrong path – we’ll add more elements along the way – do you think we will discover a solution? – that idea could drive us in an entirely new direction
“Problems are Containers” – that idea is out of scope – we need to pull in more expertise – your concern is at the core of a very strong argument
“Problems are Buildings” – that issue is foundational – we need to build some case studies for this – we need to architect a different approach – that point could help us unlock further dialog

These metaphors are both consistent and coherent. We can use virtually all of the descriptive phrases interchangeably. Each helps to address specific perspectives of what a problem is and how web might attack it, with generally intuitive results. As we do this, listeners will tend to subconsciously resonate (sometimes emotionally) with one aspect or another.

Here we expose a cultural challenge. Though metaphor is present in everyday speech, the injection of subjectivity and emotional response into problem solving has historically sparked concerns for scientists, academics, whole schools of philosophers, and many in the business world. Why? Because we live in a Western culture that prides itself on its highly rational objectivity. A presumption of factual certainty has overtaken our thinking, and made metaphor an enemy of precision.

Case in point? Let’s circle back:

“Public Education is a Factory” has become an increasingly popular metaphor (employed by both Clay Christensen and Sir Kenneth Robinson) that sparks widely different responses from educators, academics and parents. Many practitioners, for example, will have an immediate negative reaction. Arguably, from a professional vantage, this clearly can’t be true; it is in conflict with a deeply held vision of education. But if approached with an open mind, metaphors like this one can start a useful dialog. In what ways are schools like factories? What are the implications? What can be done to about it? Deeper, more highly invested conversations tend to energize a serious, intentional discovery exercise. Metaphor can literally get people to think outside their silo’d mental models. When we encourage subjectivity in thinking, we can open minds (our own, and those of others) to new ideas. When collaborating, we provide stakeholders multiple ways to relate, sparking deeper engagement. By tapping personal experiences, a broader portfolio of relevant ideas can emerge.

Doesn’t this help us with critical thinking in general? I say yes.

Though many see critical thought as a reductive exercise (harkening back to the world of objective science), I think we need to train our minds for expansive thought as well. Effective use of metaphor exposes diverse aspects of our ideas. Besides shedding light on how we think, we understand better how we relate to each other. Do we agree? Do we disagree? Why? And all the while, we’re developing an ever richer solution language, steeped in metaphorical insight.

Again, intentional collaboration ultimately seeks to establish and expand upon our common ground.

Metaphor can help us get there.

Lakoff says a metaphor works if it advances our understanding. I’m seeing some compelling possibilities. Are you?

9 thoughts on “Lakoff on Metaphor: Rethinking how we Frame and Unpack Complex Problems

  1. Not “metaphors”, but 3 little gems I’m used to “frame” my discourse project. (“Participatory deliberation” as a “discourse-based decision support system.)

    * Nuts and Bolts
    * Brass Tacks
    * Hammer and Tongs

    p.s. 2 other gems, also not metaphors, but I think they serve to frame:

    To energize collective intelligence …
    … to magnetize the wisdom of crowds.

    Thinking together about what is crucial …
    … speaking deeply about simple things.

    All for naught, but I still like the stuff.

  2. Hey Ben,

    Great to hear from you – !!

    Your input is not for naught at all. I think many of us are practitioners of language in the context of social change. I love your examples. Each seems to have metaphorical roots.

    Let’s try:

    “Deliberative Devices are Tools” – the issues he shared were the nuts and bolts of the our problem – we quickly dispensed with small talk and got down to brass tacks
    “Social Attractors are Energy” – he motivated the crowd with his magnetic leadership – the energy for the meeting was palpable
    “Thought is Body of Water” – speaking deeply about the topic exposed new insights – still waters run deep

    My opinion? All of the above are rich metaphorical devices, offering concrete examples that helps us emote responses and buy-in with our collaborators.

    Thanks for the input! Keep it coming.


  3. Hey Chris,

    You know I think you’re brilliant! I say this unabashedly while still holding as truth that part of the reason for my affection for your work is that we speak the same “language” and share many mental models. You say what I think but articulate the concepts rattling around in my brain so much better than I can.

    I am also a fan of the metaphor. They do provide a sense of shared meaning and can help diverse groups come to a common understanding. I have found that they can be challenging within some groups however. In mental health settings the more concrete thinkers are confused by them. I have also had some challenges in using what I thought were really common metaphors in dialogue with First Nations groups.

    Challenges aside they do help us to see things in different ways and open up the possibility of finding solutions and creating ideas that we may not find otherwise.

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make the space to co-create an understanding of the language we use in a specific context?

    I used to facilitate programs for “consumers of correctional services” and at the beginning of each program we would go through all of the language, terms, definitions and metaphors used in the program. We would go through each one, as a group, so that we had a shared understanding of the meaning.

    It was always funny to me that we could make that space for a group of incarcerated individuals but not for board members, school administration folks, parent teacher groups, or any other group that comes together for a common purpose.

    • Wow, Jamie, you are too kind. Thank you so much.

      I recall having a very positive reaction to other posts I’ve seen when all the ideas and thinking seemed to line up. I guess they call it “resonance”?

      When I read your excellent recent post on KM, diversity and complexity, I sensed some common ground.

      To your point re: metaphor challenges, I think the inexactness allows for the group to explore at the edges, where some of the best ideas emerge. The ‘factory model’ aspect of public ed that I cite – used heavily by Christensen and Robinson, and now many others in the industry – is a super working example. Challenging the status quo doesn’t always win you friends and allies, but it never fails to engender a conversation. If folks bring an open mind, new insights tend to result.

      Yes, white space for co-creation. Compelling. An empty canvas for thinkers.

      And re: your experience with the incarcerated, seems the setting provided you with highly focused and committed stakeholders. A new approach that I’ll have to keep in mind to drive collaborative behavior.

      Locked doors :)

      Again, I truly appreciate your feedback and interest, Jamie. Hoping much more to come from our collaboration .. some new ideas flowing already.

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