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Using Metaphors to Teach and Change

As storytellers and teachers, it is often effective to use metaphor to assist clients and students in breaking through mental barriers. A good, well-placed metaphor allows people to create their own solutions instead of creating resistance by saying, “here’s what you’re doing wrong.” By creating a short story or metaphor that applies to the situation, it is possible to help others find a positive outcome that they discover on their own - which prompts growth, confidence, and higher self-esteem.

The challenge of creating metaphors is that everyone’s mind is different. Each element of a story can be created differently in the client’s mind and that can have an impact on the outcome.

One of the most common metaphors we use with coaching clients is a fence or a wall. They can be used to describe the challenges that the client faces. Yet fences and walls present some challenges because they come in all shapes, sizes, and uses.

If I say “fence,” what comes to mind? Do you see a nice, white, picket fence around an idyllic and cozy family home? A prison fence? An electric fence? A climbable chain link fence? Or, perhaps, you think of an unscalable stone wall with broken shards of glass on top? Fences mean different things for different people.

Here’s an example of how different people can create two very different fences, even if they’re thinking of the exact same fence.

I grew up in western Colorado, not far from one of the most photographed and scenic places in the world - Dallas Divide, near Telluride. Most people haven’t heard of it but you’ve probably seen pictures. Here’s a picture of Dallas Divide taken by user Russ D on Flickr:

The beautiful fall sunrise scene has a lovely rustic fence in the foreground. Take a good look at the fence. There’s a story that goes with it. That fence borders a 17,000-acre property known as the Double RL Ranch. The Double RL is owned by Ralph and Ricky Lauren. You may recognize Ralph Lauren’s name because he is one of the premier fashion designers in the world. Ricky is his wife and quite a bright business mind on her own. The Double RL Ranch has appeared in dozens of design and architectural magazines (Architectural Digest) (Elle Decor) (House and Garden).

The Double RL Ranch is not just one of Ralph Lauren’s vacation homes. It is a working cattle ranch, complete with cowboys and plenty of western culture. That’s where the fence comes in. As any good rancher could tell you by looking at pictures of the Double RL along Dallas Divide, that fence is completely useless on a cattle ranch. You see, cows bump up against and rub on a fence. Since the rails to this fence are on the outside of the fence posts, the cows will eventually knock them down and escape. A “proper” three rail fence on a cattle ranch would have the rails attached on the inside of the posts. When the fence contractor arrived to put up the fence, Ralph was adamant that the fence - first and foremost - look attractive (ie, the rails on the outside), even though the ranch manager strongly suggested that the fence needed to also be practical. In the end, the owner won out and close to a million dollars was spent building a fence along the highway frontage of the massive ranch. While you can’t see it in the pictures, way in the background, there’s another fence. It’s an affordable and hidden-from-view wire fence designed to contain the cattle.

I heard this story from some of the ranch workers in the late 1980s when I delivered an urgent part that the ranch needed to repair a vehicle. I guess the fence story was pretty big news among the ranch hands as the new owner and the gritty ranch manager were still figuring one another out.

I remember the story and it shapes the way I think about metaphor even today. A fence isn't just a fence. Your fence is different than my fence. If you ask a creative person to think of a fence as part of a metaphor, you would get a completely different fence than you get if you ask a down-to-earth, blue-collar worker. Neither fence is right - they’re just different. One fence is aesthetically pleasing while the other is practical.

When you offer a metaphor make sure you cleanly offer it - if you want a beautiful fence, describe it that way. Every person will see their own fence if you ask for just a fence. Change and learning are individual and good change should feel like the metaphors fit perfectly. A well-placed metaphor creates change that a client or student creates and that’s the kind of change that lasts.

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