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Life is like an Etch-A-Sketch: Exploring the Power of Metaphor

"Landslide victory"

 “It’s a rollercoaster”


“Splitting hairs”


“By the skin of my teeth”


“It’s like herding cats”


And the old workplace favourite – “the elephant in the room”.

a photograph image of an elephant in a modern loungeroom.

We use metaphors and similes all the time

They are often overused in our cultural lexicon, our predictive text knows them, our politicians love them, and our journalists trill them off their tongues like a canary (see what I did there?).


But do you know that metaphors are brilliant to help you find a way to express something really complicated, and then to find even more meaning in the metaphor?


This week I was discussing complex adaptive systems with a mentee, as this research was a core part of my Masters in Change Management almost 20 years ago and is a topic of her Masters in Healthcare Leadership now.


When I learnt about it, it was with the metaphor of an ocean shore – a very complex ecosystem and that whilst some elements of it appear predictable (eg the tides), there are many factors that make the foreshore highly variable and adaptive (including the tides actually – just think of what a Spring tide can do!).


Life in the shallows is precarious, day in day out.


The natural world is one big enormous complex adaptive system of complex adaptive systems.


And we humans are part of that complexity. That’s why being a leader is hard!


Anyway, back to the point of metaphors – it’s a technique we use in coaching and mentoring to help people think about their thing from a different perspective (by using a different part of the brain).


How would you describe your knotty problem as a metaphor?


What shape does it have? What setting is it in? What are the sights, smells, sounds, textures you notice about the imagery?


Now lean back to your complex problem, how does the headline and the detail of that problem relate to your metaphor?


Spend a few minutes leaning into your metaphor and leaning out to your problem, and repeat.


If metaphors work for you, the imagery will come to life and you will notice more and more. You might just find some new insights to help unlock your problem.


And if metaphors don’t work for you, that’s okay too as they’re not for everyone.


And how would I describe my life at the moment?


Well it’s a bit like one of those devices from the 1980s, where you turn the nobs to draw an image on a screen – except all I ever got was a bunch of straight and squiggling lines in random parts of the screen, resulting in a fairly ‘abstract’ drawing.


[Ahh, the etchasketch - I had to google it!]


I have some degree of control of the drawing, and I am trying to make meaning of it, but in short it has felt quite chaotic in recent months.

Would you like help thinking through your knotty problem?

If so, then feel free to contact me via my website to book a free, 30 minute discovery call.

In that call, we will share a bit about each other, and consider how coaching or mentoring might help with your knotty problem.

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