Blog Post: My Favorite Book on Metaphors

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Recently I coached the ownership team of a small service firm with about thirty employees.  One of the challenges they face concerns a salesman who so badly wants to make the sale that he will customize and upgrade the services beyond the scope of what the company can truly support (or afford).  They all know the issue, but it’s a concept they find difficult to describe concisely.  As a form of active listening, I offered a metaphor to encapsulate the issue: “If I sold trucks, I could sell them all day long if I threw in a Ferrari with every purchase.”  One of the owners immediately reacted with, “Yes!  That’s exactly what is going on here.”  The metaphor stuck, and they’ve been using it in the weeks since the coaching session.

Coaches facilitate change and growth for our clients.  To this end, we use lots of competencies, tools and techniques, from questions to worksheets to assessments. But metaphors are perhaps my favorite go-to method for supporting client progress. Metaphors serve to make unknown situations a bit more familiar, complicated problems a bit simpler, and fear-inducing challenges a bit safer. (For more on the power of metaphors in coaching, check out this blog post and my book The Language of Coaching).

For some coaches, metaphors and similar word images come naturally. For other coaches, they can be a struggle. One of the things that’s helped me develop a greater ability with metaphors is being around great metaphors.  This brings me to the point I want to make in this post: if you want to read a book filled with metaphors, read CS Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity.  The book is his attempt to describe the truth of Christianity to a reader who is unsure or even skeptical.

I’ve been re-reading the book as part of a study I’m leading at church, and I was struck by Lewis’s effective use of metaphors.  He uses metaphors as brilliant teaching tools to help the reader understand and accept the unfamiliar, complicated, or concerning aspects of Christianity. Here’s a sampling:

Morality piano keys.  In the second chapter of Book One, Lewis wants to distinguish the moral law from particular instincts such as the herd instinct or the survival instinct. To make this distinction, he uses the keys of a piano. A particular piano key produces a beautiful sound when it is played in the right context. Other times however, the same piano key produces an ugly sound because of it being used in a wrong way.  The key (no pun intended!) is to play each key according to the sheet music.  In a similar way, following a particular instinct or impulse is not always moral or immoral, it depends on whether the impulse follows the moral law.

Progress in the wrong direction.  In the fifth chapter of Book One, Lewis addresses two objections to the notion of somebody or something from beyond our material universe influencing us. One objection is that human civilization has progressed beyond religion and there is no “turning the clock back.”  He says of course you’d want to turn the clock back if it had the wrong time.  Then he uses another metaphor: “We all want progress.  But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be.  And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.”

Sunlight on a greenhouse. In the fifth chapter of Book Two, Lewis distinguishes the Christian’s desire to be good from those who would try to earn God’s love by being good.  The Christian “does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”

I could go on and on in sharing Lewis’s metaphors in Mere Christianity: He uses math as a metaphor on several occasions. He talks about cutting off the branch we’re sitting on. For those troubled by accepting things on someone else’s authority, he says he’s never been to New York City, but he believes it to be a real place based on other people’s authority.  Anyone who disbelieves something because it’s not simple doesn’t appreciate the deep complexity of atoms and particles that constitute a “simple” table.

Lewis leverages metaphor so well because he is comfortable with imagination. The man who created Narnia and wrote The Space Trilogy applies similar imagination to the real, hard facts of Christian belief.

As coaches, we would do well to exercise our own imaginations. Like a muscle, imagination grows stronger the more it is used.  I just exercised my imagination by comparing it to a muscle.  To work the muscle of your imagination, read Mere Christianity and see how many metaphors you can spot. When you’re finished, read my favorite book on metaphors, the Bible.

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