Metaphors in Coaching

 By definition a metaphor in coaching is a figure of speech that “creates powerful, rapid learning by linking what is unfamiliar or novel with what the clients already know.”  

As Christian coaches, our most compelling examples for the potency of metaphors come from Jesus. Whether he was talking about seeds planted in different types of soil (Matthew 13) or how he is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5), Jesus took common examples from daily life to illustrate abstract spiritual principles. The metaphors he used enabled his listeners to visualize and thus understand and grasp difficult concepts.  

As a powerful coaching tool, metaphors help clients:

  • verbalize what they are experiencing and feeling.

It’s not unusual for a client to struggle as they attempt to communicate their emotions or experiences. They often can’t find the words to express where they are. A simple statement like, “I am working so hard just to keep my head above water,” not only gives the coach a clue that this person is feeling weary and struggling to survive, but also paints a verbal picture and provides the language the client might be searching for. Asking clients to “say more about that” may increase their self-awareness as they see themselves thrashing in the water and gasping for air.  

  • measure their progress.

A client might volunteer that they feel like they are living in a fog and want to explore what would help them to clear that fog.  At the end of the session, asking a simple question like, “What happened to the fog?” may illicit an answer as to whether or not the client is moving forward.  If the client reports, “Oh the fog lifted. I now have clarity about this issue,” both the coach and the client have gained feedback on the success of the session.  

  • step outside of themselves.

One of my more driven clients, was frustrated that God had her in a season of waiting.  She did not like the fact she wasn’t achieving or accomplishing anything. “Doing nothing does not sit well with my personality,” she said. “I know I need to wait on God but I’m struggling with listening to him.” During one session she mentioned feeling like she was in a rotunda not knowing which hall to go down.

I asked, “What does the rotunda look like?”

She quickly described a beautiful open area with exquisite stained glass windows. As she peered down the different hallways, she could see cherry paneled doors with brass handles. Immersed in this new setting she felt more settled. She said, “This image is helping me get out of my own little world.”

  • dive deeper.

It just so happened that the next week this client traveled to Washington D.C. As she walked in the capital rotunda and took pictures, she prayed that she would see and hear what God might be showing her. She emailed me pictures and her reflections about the experience. “I know God may want me to just sit and observe, think, reflect, and listen to Him a bit longer in this shrouded area, but I want to move in one direction or another.”

During the time we worked together, this image became a jumping off point where she drew deeper meaning from the setting and applied it to her current life.

While this client easily shared her resistance and frustration with being put on hold, not all clients are comfortable sharing their feelings.  Sometimes they will, however, latch onto a metaphor and open up about the emotions elicited by that verbal picture which in turn can take them deeper.

  • gain a new perspective.  

Using the visual picture of a rotunda, this client made the subtle yet important shift of looking at the time of waiting differently.  She began to enjoy, rather than resist, the opportunity to pray and inquire of the Lord. With anticipation, she wondered which hallway God would lead her down.

She emailed, “I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying my visuals. There is a spaciousness where I can dance with my arms extended. The hallways have thick, elegant, classy wood trim along the floors (solid godly foundation), and around each doorway, and in the crown molding (spiritual growth and transformation).”   

  • remember their newly gained insights.

Often a client experiences that wonderful AHA! only to have it fade away weeks later.  A metaphor that the client embraces is easily retrieved.  It also continues to build a deeper alliance between the coach and client. Throughout our year-long coaching relationship, the rotunda image was frequently revisited bringing further insight. When God was ready to have her move on, she said, “It’s bittersweet. I’m experiencing some nostalgia.”

While the benefits of using metaphors in coaching are significant, it is important to note that clients who are quite literal in their thinking will not grasp the idea of using figurative language.

For those clients who do grasp metaphors, however, here are two ways you can use this tool in your practice.  

  • Help the clients hear the metaphor they are using

They may suggest they feel backed into a corner and quickly move on to another statement. This metaphor they offered may or may not have the potential for uncovering something important if asked, “What does it feel like to be backed in a corner.” Many times a “metaphor enables you to draw on imagery and experience to help the client comprehend faster and more easily.”  

Help your clients hear what they are saying and explore what it might mean to them.  A metaphor, like a picture, accesses a different part of the brain that might be closed off to logical thinking.

  • Offer a metaphor

As you listen to your client, the Holy Spirit may reveal an appropriate metaphor.  While there is nothing wrong with presenting your idea, realize it may or may not resonant with the client. I’ve found garden-related metaphors especially valuable. “Metaphors about journeys and garden work effectively with almost all clients who consider the path they are on and the patient growth required.”   

Even when a metaphor you offer lands with a client do not assume your interpretation is the same as the client’s.  For example, one client was frustrated she could not eliminate all the negative thoughts racing through her mind.  Since she was a gardener, I suggested that those negative thoughts were similar to the weeds that keep popping up in her garden. My slant, which thankfully I didn’t offer, was that the best we can do is minimize the weeds in a garden, not eliminate them. In the same way, the best we can do is minimize the negative thoughts, not eliminate them.

While she immediately latched onto the metaphor, her interpretation was that she needed to plant lots of beautiful plants in her garden so there was less space for the weeds, and in turn if she planted lots of positive thoughts in her mind there would be less room for the unwanted ones.

In summary, metaphors help our clients gain clarity, insight and deepen learning while enabling them to move forward faster. We as coaches have been given the wonderful privilege of joining God and watching Him work. One of the more powerful tools God has chosen to give us is the use of metaphors.

About the Author: Georgia Shaffer is an author, professional speaker, a Christian life coach, and a licensed Psychologist in Pennsylvania. Her books include: Avoiding the 12 Relationship Mistakes Women Make; 12 Smart Choices for Finding the Right Guy; Taking Out Your Emotional Trash, and A Gift of Mourning Glories: Restoring Your Life After Loss. Coaching the Coach: Life Coaching Stories and Tips for Transforming Lives is a book she compiled and includes the wisdom of 49 Christian coaches including Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn more about Georgia at www.georgiashaffer.com.

1 Patrick Williams and Diane S. Menendez, Becoming a Professional Life Coach (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), p 132
2 Some of the metaphors Jesus used: “I am the bread of life.  I am the light of the world. I am the vine; you are the branches.  You are the salt of the earth.”
3 Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth, Co-Active Coaching (Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Pulishing, 2011), p 43.
Patrick Williams and Diane S. Menendez, Becoming a Professional Life Coach
(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), p 136.  

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