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?

Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.

Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

On Semantics: When Ambiguity is the Enemy

Asking for directions at the Tower of Babel must have been quite an ordeal, with everyone speaking a different language.

I guess they had organizational silos way back then.

Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we still can’t get through a day without debating simple words and phrases. The latest roadblock: unpacking the overused and often misleading term “social media”. In general, the confusion often comes down to context, ie., how or where the words are being used. And as I’ve posted previously, in a virtual world, context can change quickly.

The fundamental question is this: Do you care if people understand you? I’ll go out on a limb here:

Our messages get misunderstood, if not ignored, when we’re not careful in choosing our words. It’s worse if we fail to consider what filters our audience may use to interpret them. Collaborators today have no choice but to recognize: ambiguity is the enemy.

The answer lies in renewed focus on semantics, the study of what words and phrases mean. Language is an inexact science. Fundamentally, it requires interpretation. And as message volumes increase and the rate of exchange accelerates, we need to get better at mastering it. Fast. Let me throw out some areas for focus:


    1. Try to be clear. Ok, it’s a stretch: it’s more fun to be trendy and cryptic. Twitter’s 140c limit is a great excuse for short cuts, substituting all sorts of phonetic (“sounds like”) spellings due to lack of space. But if it means you can’t be understood, re-group. Simplify your message.


    1. Dictionary. Don’t be shy. Save time debating. Look it up.
    2. Thesaurus. Are you stuck? Look to thoughtful lists of related words, aka synonyms. Stuck on a word that is causing endless debates? Find a better one.
    3. Learn the etymology. If you’re (still) stuck, check the dictionary or other sources to learn the origins of a word, what it’s fragments mean, and the history of how it’s been used. When getting it right really matters, this level of digging can really help.
    4. Authoritative SME’s. Use your favorite search engine, Wikipedia or Twitter to find experts. Try searching relevant hashtags. Reinventing wheels is a great exercise in creativity, but reinventing words and their meanings slows down collaboration. Find a source everyone can agree to.


    1. Domain. Everything that’s related to the topic you’re talking about.
    2. Understand Domain Boundaries. So you’ve got a domain. Where are it’s edges? What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion? For important, longer-term collaboration, getting this right up front is important.  If it needs to change midstream, spend a little time letting everyone know and agree to the boundary change.
    3. Set Context, and try to hold it. In simple terms, this means staying focused on the topic at hand, keeping within the domain boundaries specified. This may be the single biggest “critical thinking” skill that virtual collaboration forces on us. It’s a challenge, because different contexts often imply alternate cultures, goals, and semantics. Pay attention to that. Starting a dialog? State the context. “Today we’re focused on  X in the context of Y.”


    1. Knowledge Management (KM). Since the mid-1990’s, a business practice focused on the identification and capture of the critical insights in an organization. By most accounts, this is evolving with the help of social media. Follow: #km #kmers
    2. Controlled, Shared Vocabulary. This is important where organizations or ecosystems need to agree on enough key words that its worth publishing the definitions to “lock them in”. Very helpful for structured collaboration in a specific, closed domain. (Note: We may need to find a more open-ended alternative for virtual collaboration, that allow working semantics to evolve in open domains, with vocabulary that is “guided” vs. “controlled”.)
    3. Solution Language. Often, a group can get traction through starting to frame the end state. In the process, common ground is established, and key terms emerge. What will a solution look like? How can we describe it? Who will be the major players, and what will be the outcomes?
    4. Taxonomy & Folksonomy. A taxonomy shows how words or topics relate in a “top down” hierarchy. Important in biology. Once important in classifying knowledge. Current importance debated, mostly by folks in KM. Not to be confused with folksonomy which is how words or topics are now getting tagged, forming an unstructured, crowd-sourced, “bottom up” view of topic relationships. A great current example of this is the use of hashtags on Twitter. These are created in a random fashion, but gradually gain acceptance (or not) among folks that see value in them. SME: @StephLemieux #taxonomy
    5. Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.

    Yes, there’s a lot to this. That’s why its hard. And why its important that we get it right.

    Do you want to help fine tune the above definitions?  Watch for these definitions in wiki format, so we can work together toward a baseline of semantic concepts for virtual collaboration. If you already know of one, super, let’s not reinvent it ..

    Meantime, let’s focus more on what it takes to be understood. It can make our days go so much faster. I’ll try to hold up my end. Will you?