Metaphorically Speaking

I watched recently an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation in which an alien people spoke only using metaphors drawn from the stories and mythologies of their culture. Communication between the humanoids on the Enterprise with the aliens was impossible at first because the Enterprise crew did not know the stories. By the end of the show, Picard and crew had figured out enough to communicate important shared ideas that saved the Enterprise from destruction. The idea of using metaphors to communicate in conflict situations is the subject of this mediate.com article that explains:

"In conveying ideas we resort to metaphors which are very useful linguistic tools. In mediation, language is almost all we have to work with. Thus, an understanding of the metaphors we use in every day life is helpful in increasing the positive use of them in ways that enhance the mediation process. It is not a question of whether we use metaphors. The question is, which ones we use...

We each have an organizing metaphor we use for conflict. War is the most common metaphor for argument or conflict and people who use it as their organizing metaphor draw from the human experience of war. If we think that argument is war, we will use metaphors drawn from the human experience of war.

Lawyers engage in the adversarial process and most commonly use the conflict is war metaphor. They come to the session armed with the facts: the holster is transformed into a briefcase. They are ready to shoot down your argument. Is this why participants in a legal argument are often casualties? There are many injuries and, as with most wars, a victor and a loser, or two losers.

An alternative metaphor is that conflict is a journey. We have a destination (goals). We take the first steps towards an agreement. In looking at a problem we say "Well let's see where we go from here." Of course, not all journeys are smooth. We can run into heavy seas or hit a bump in the road...

There are a number of other useful categories:

conflict is a game: "would you like me to mediate your dispute or referee your fight?"
conflict is a chemical: If we can't find an immediate solution perhaps the problem will simply dissolve away."
conflict is a building: "You're not on firm ground." "Let's see if we can structure an agreement."
conflict is a gamble: "I'll take my chances in court. The odds are in my favor."

The choice of metaphor has an influence on the behavior of the participants because it sets tone to the negotiations...Mediation participants who invoke the war metaphor often also believe that all is fair in love and war. There will be a winner and a loser and the war tactics used to achieve victory are acceptable.

On the other hand, participants who invoke the argument-is-a-journey metaphor will take the first steps together; they will share the goal of the journey. When they get lost they will help each other find the way back to the common goal. They will, in fact, have to cooperate to complete the journey...

When people use a metaphor that is not consonant with their general view of the world, the metaphor can convey a belief that the individual does not hold. It also signals to the listener to expect a behavior that matches the metaphor...Thus, one task for the mediator is to help the clients use the metaphors that most closely express their view of the conflict and/or develop an organizing metaphor that is more conducive to cooperation and productive negotiations. When doing this I believe that indirect messages, such as careful use of alternative metaphors are usually more successful in creating change than direct or confronting messages. I operate under the assumption that my influence is best exercised through metaphors which influence the participant's metaphors..."

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