Beware of Misplaced Metaphors

I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like is both a clever book title and a useful resource.

Metaphors are powerful. One of my closest friends, Susan Fish, is a masterful writer of metaphors and they enliven her prose. Matt Church’s incorporation of metaphor into the well-rounded thinking of Thought Leaders Business School has been transformative to the way I communicate (click here to get your free copy of Think).

But recently, I metaphor (met a metaphor?) I didn’t like, and it has me thinking about the power of metaphor not only to build connections between people, but to risk breaching them.

In this case, the person I was speaking with used metaphors that I found to be quite aggressive and military and male. Not only could I not relate to them directly, but I found myself bristling. In my head, they interrupted the flow of our conversation rather than strengthening our rapport. Interestingly, I received this thoughtful piece from House of Beautiful Business not long afterwards, which put some language around my discomfort. (I still feel the same way whenever I hear anyone use “rule of thumb,” despite its contested origins.)

Later that same week, I heard someone use an analogy to which I could relate much more easily (i.e. two people playing sports that had different rules), but in this case, he didn’t tie his illustration back to the point he was making. Although I could nod at the metaphor itself, it lost its explanatory power because it wasn’t clearly tethered to his message.

Metaphors are designed to help the listener have a moment of illumination and connection. To lead them to a place of “Oh! I really get what you’re trying to say. It’s so much clearer now!” But to get there, the metaphor needs to resonate for the listener, not just in the speaker’s head. Choosing it therefore calls for empathy, not just cleverness.  

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