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Metaphor provides a way of looking

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A couple years ago I attended a prestigious conference that is one of the premiere leading-edge forums in the world for social and cultural change. While most of the conference was quite inspiring, I was shocked to hear one of the keynote speakers consistently speak of his work in the Amazon rain forest as a battle against the large corporations who are destroying it. He was pumped up and aggressive, literally describing his mission as one of amassing “guns” and “tanks.” This man may have thought his message was rebalancing the ecosystem in the Amazon and that was certainly the designated topic. But on a much more penetrating level, his talk was about war.

We humans are storytellers, and the stories we tell always reveal some sort of underlying perspective. This perspective might be positive: “when life presents lemons, make lemonade” or “there’s always another opportunity around the next corner.” Or fearful: “the world is a scary place, best to stay on the straight and narrow.” Seeing the world as a hostile force, viewing other cultures as “enemies” or believing that life is about making lemonade are all examples of metaphor. Metaphor is not what we see; it is the means by which we see. When we choose a different metaphor, life changes.

Thirty-five years of outstanding research by George Lakoff and others has demonstrated how metaphors form the basis of our cognition, shaping how we think, speak and act in everyday life. All of us hold an almost infinite variety of metaphoric lenses, and many (if not most) of them are unconscious. In fact, metaphors are so embedded in our thought processes that it’s impossible to become conscious of them all. According to Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By, metaphorical thought is “unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious.” No matter what the situation, there is an underlying metaphor that is providing a perspective or frame.

Metaphors shape our lives, organizations, institutions and culture at the highest levels. Twenty years ago Donald Schon wrote a chapter in Metaphor and Thought (edited by Andrew Ortony) about metaphor’s impact on social policy:

Problem settings are mediated by the “stories” people tell about troublesome situations—stories in which they describe what is wrong and what needs fixing…the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the directions of problem solving. One of the most pervasive stories about social services, for example, diagnoses the problem as “fragmentation” and prescribes “coordination” as the remedy. But services seen as fragmented might be seen, alternatively, as autonomous…Under the spell of metaphor, it appears obvious that fragmentation is bad and coordination, good. But this sense of obviousness depends very much on the metaphor remaining tacit...We can spell out the metaphor, elaborate the assumptions which flow from it, and examine their appropriateness in the present situation.

It seems to me that before making high-level executive decisions that affect millions of people or creating policy decisions that affect the well being of entire countries, we might want to take a look at the lens we are looking through. And this lens is a metaphor. Metaphors brilliantly show us how our thinking has become narrowed or our vision limited.

The problem is simple: we humans focus on what we see, rather than how we are seeing…not realizing that the how is shaping the what.

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