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Metaphor in Mediation: Mediation is a _What_?

by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.


"A bird is a feathered living creature."

That sentence is a definition. Definitions are useful and essential; they make it possible for us to distinguish one thing from another -- to distinguish bats from birds, for example. Much of the time they can be scientifically verified or falsified.

"Life is a bowl of cherries."

Although this sentence is structurally identical to the preceding one, it's not a definition but a metaphor. It doesn't provide us with a mechanism for distinguishing "life" from anything else, and it can't be verified either by science or by logic. Traditionally, this has led people to refer to such items as "only figures of speech," with the implication that a metaphor is nothing more than a kind of linguistic ornament. Even today, when metaphor is the hottest domain in the field of cognitive science, that tends to be the popular understanding.

This is unfortunate, because metaphors are the most powerful tools we have for bringing about changes in human feelings and attitudes. Definitions don't have this property, but metaphors do. Changes that are brought about by logical argument and "true facts" take a very long time, often such a long time that they're obsolete by the time they're accomplished; changes brought about by coercion happen quickly, but they last only until someone comes along with a more powerful weapon, a larger bribe, or some other kind of superior force. Changes that result from metaphor, by contrast, happen very fast and and are longlasting.

My concern here is not with the history of metaphor, and I won't be going through the various theoretical models.(That material is available everywhere; the list of Internet addresses at the end of this brief article will take you to it.) Instead, I'm going to focus on how the power of metaphor can be put to practical use in mediation. I will need to define only two basic terms: mediation, and metaphor.

By "mediation" I mean conflict resolution of all kinds -- essentially, the negotiation of agreement without coercion. By "metaphor" I mean the process of making one thing clear by demonstrating what it has in common with some other thing, using the format "X=Y" or a variation of that format. (This process has a number of technical terms associated with it -- simile, metonymy, and so on -- I will refer to all such devices simply as metaphors.)

Why are metaphors important in mediation?

Metaphors are our most important mechanism for changing attitudes quickly and lastingly because they _reframe_ issues; they are our most common barrier to understanding and consensus because they function as _perceptual filters_. As you will see in the examples below, these two functions overlap and intermingle. Their separation is artificial and for explanatory convenience only; it can't be done in the real world.

Examples of reframes

1. I know no better way to begin than with a paradigmatic example from my own experience; it makes the point with great clarity (and does me no credit at all). Years ago, when I visited somewhere and my hosts left the television running in the room where we were talking, I interpreted that as rudeness and I felt unwelcome; I felt that if they had been interested in our conversation they would have turned the tv set off. My attitude toward my hosts -- and my behavior toward them from then on -- was affected very negatively, even though the television's sound was turned so low that it was nothing more than a background noise.

Then one day I read Camille Paglia's casual statement that the television is the modern hearthfire, and the lights came on at last in my mind. I wouldn't expect people to put out the fire in their fireplace because we are sitting near it talking; I wouldn't interpret their hearthfire's soft crackling noise as rudeness or a signal that I'm not welcome. Why on earth would I feel any differently about their television set? The change in my attitude and behavior toward both the television and my hosts was instantaneous and permanent. Neither logical argument nor coercion could have duplicated that effect.

2. When we have to deal with a major bad weather event -- a blizzard, for example, or a tornado, or a flood -- we use the term "disaster" and our perception is that we need help; we may even feel that we need "rescue." Why? Because we have no electric lights, no running water, no toilet facilities, no air conditioning (or no heat), no modern cooking facilities, no television, no convenient transportation, no way to get to the grocery store, and so on.

However, we are entirely willing to spend our hard-earned money and our scarce free time doing something called "going camping," where the conditions are essentially identical. We may look forward all year long to that camping trip. The difference between the two events depends not on "facts" but on perceptions, and those perceptions are determined by the metaphor we're using.

3. Suppose a corporation or organization is doing badly because it follows a lot of long-established traditional rigid rules and procedures that can't be adapted to its changing needs. I could talk to its people at great length about the way I thought they should change their ways. I could present detailed descriptions of the change and suggest detailed procedures. However, I can accomplish the same thing more quickly and more efficiently by just saying that it's time for them to stop driving their business and start sailing it. The metaphor behind that statement -- "This enterprise is a sailboat" or, if it's large enough, "This enterprise is a sailing ship" -- would save many hours of explanation and discussion.

4. People are often shocked at and puzzled by the seemingly permissive attitude in the Old Testament toward the imposition of sexual acts on women by coercion; especially in today's culture, where the emphasis on sexual codes is so intense that "living in sin" can only refer to sexual behavior, the attitude seems almost incomprehensible. However, what we today call "rape" was in Old Testament times a _property_ crime; the injured party was not the woman but the man who was her father, husband, or a male relative responsible for her. Women who had no "designated responsible male" -- for example, because all the males involved had been killed in battle -- were thus perceived as available for sexual use; there was no male whose property rights could be violated by that act. We see the remnants of that "Women are property" metaphor in the U.S. even today when the expression "damaged goods" is used to refer to a woman who has been raped; the remnant appears to be "Sexual 'rights' to a woman are property."

I should note that the background text of the Old Testament is aimed at blunting the effect of such attitudes, much like the Old Testament approaches to slavery (where else do you find a prohibition against returning escaped slaves to their owners?) or to vengance (limiting the amount of vengance people can take to proportional amounts without anything tacked on for moral outrage or similar concepts as was the norm).

Still, if you are unaware of the metaphor the text is addressing, the text surely seems strange.

--note added by the editor.

5. The effects of gun violence in the U.S. are an enormous social and financial burden; the law enforcement system seems to have been largely helpless to do anything about the problem. The Center for Disease Control and related agencies are set up to do the kind of research and outreach that's needed for dealing with gun violence, but it wasn't their role and was outside their territory. The metaphor "gun violence is an epidemic" reframed the situation and made it possible to set that boundary aside and bring the agencies' resources to bear. This has led to a flood of articles in medical journals framing the gun violence question in medical terms -- and a flood of articles elsewhere that furiously object to the reframing and claim that it creates massive distortion.

6. Throughout much of the world, women live out their lives without ever suspecting that they have contracted a disorder called "menopause." Menopause can be inconvenient and embarassing, as can the process in young males that we describe with an offhand, "Your voice is changing." No one suggests that the young males in question should undergo medical treatment for that particular change of life. Women in the U.S., however, are transformed into "patients" who must interact with doctors for "treatment" of "symptoms."

This is accomplished by the reframing metaphor "Menopause is an illness" (an illness with its own alarming name, _hypoestrogenemia_). At the moment we are engaged in creating an entire new medical industry around a brand new "illness" called "perimenopause," defined roughly as the seven years prior to actual menopause. (We can only wonder how men would react to having their mature years called "hypotestosteronemia," with a corresponding medical structure attached.)

7. In Japan, that-which-has-been-conceived-but-does-not-get-born -- whether as a result of abortion or as a result of miscarriage -- is known as a "water baby." There are temples in Japan where the family places a small statue in honor of the water baby. Parents, and even whole families, regularly visit these statues; often they bring gifts suitable for an infant. The water baby has an ongoing role in the family. In the U.S., we are in great conflict about what, precisely, that-which-has-been-conceived-but-does-not-get-born [call it (X) for the moment] _is_. X is an unborn child? An infant? A product of conception? A fetus? What? Each of the terms brings a different metaphor into play and reframes the issue in a different way, with differing behavioral consequences -- and it is literally a matter of life and death.

8. Health workers in India had no luck getting people to understand and help with the problems caused by the dirtiness of the Ganges when they talked about it in terms of "pollution," although the Indians they spoke to were entirely fluent in English. To the Indians, the River Ganges is holy; to say that something holy is "polluted" is an impossible contradiction.

When the health workers changed the metaphor and began talking about the river as a "neglected" entity, people's attitudes changed; they became concerned about taking care of the river, and progress toward making the river more healthful then became possible.

Examples of perceptual filters

1. All day long, every day, we have to make decisions about our behavior without having a clearcut law or rule to follow. We have customary procedures to follow when we need to make a _major_ decision, but those are rare. For all the multitude of small decisions that face us, we have very little time; certainly we don't have time to sit down and list all the pros and cons for every decision, discuss them with others, ponder the alternatives, and so on. We therefore rely heavily on a metaphor or metaphors as our guide, and we sort out our perceptions accordingly for routine matters.

In the U.S., the majority of mainstream adult men use football as their perceptual filter, functioning from within the metaphor "Life is a football game." The majority of mainstream adult women, by contrast, use "Life is a traditional schoolroom." This leads to arguments in which the woman insists that the man has lied, the man insists that although what he said was false it was not a lie, the woman leaps to the conclusion that the man has no morals, and the man leaps to the conclusion that the woman has no brains.

On the football field, pretending that you have the ball when you don't have it is not a lie. Pretending that you are going to run one direction and then running another is not a lie. These acts are simply "how the game is played." In the traditional schoolroom, a false statement (or its nonverbal equivalent) is a lie -- period. The difference has nothing to do with morals or brains; rather, it is a matter of filtering perceptions of the world through different metaphors and using the scenarios and scripts of the two metaphors as a basis for decision-making.

Certainly there are people who are exceptions -- men whose perceptual filter is baseball or basketball instead of football, for example. But the football field and the schoolroom are always the most likely candidates in mainstream America. I have been told that the equivalent for most adult Chinese males is the family altar; if that is true, it's important information. We can be certain that "Life is a family altar" would be an extraordinarily unlikely perceptual filter for an adult male in the U.S. who is not Chinese. We know that the rules governing behavior on a football field are very different from those governing behavior in the context of a family altar.

2. When two people or groups have different metaphors serving as perceptual filters, seemingly intractable disagreements can occur. For example, the librarian who perceives a library as a storehouse of information will inevitably be in perpetual conflict with the person who perceives it as a fountain or dispenser of information. The member of the public will want to check out as many books as he or she can read in the specified time period; the librarian will fight that, because the storehouse metaphor has as its goal that all the books should be at the library and in their assigned places on the shelves. If neither librarian nor borrower understands the reason for the conflict, they will become locked in a grim struggle in which each views the other as at best malicious and at worst quite mad.

3. Much of our life in American today revolves around the metaphor "Argument is combat." We spend vast amounts of time in arguments over things we really care nothing at all about, simply because the rule -- in combat -- is that you must get in there and _win_. We waste vast amounts of emotion being miserable over disagreements that we have "lost," because the stigma associated with being the Loser is so severe in our culture.

There's no logical reason at all why our perceptions of every disagreement must be filtered through "Argument is combat"; we do it because it has been our practice for so long that we've forgotten that that metaphor is not a definition. We could just as easily decide to adopt the metaphor "Argument is carpentry"; in carpentry, there are no winners or losers. We have the linguistic resources to do that. We don't have to say, "I cut him to pieces" or "I blew them right out of the water"; we can say "I built a much stronger case than they were able to build."

How do we work against [NOT "fight"] the effects of a powerful metaphor?

The only thing useful for making a stronger case than one good metaphor makes is a better -- or at least equally good -- metaphor; logical argument, facts, statistics, pleading, and the like are ineffectual. Consider the example of "pro-life" versus "pro-choice." We can word the pro-life metaphor as "Pro-life people are baby-defenders"; it's not elegant, but it will serve. The linguistic opposite of "pro-life" is "pro-death" -- which brings with it "Pro-death people are baby-killers" -- and you cannot mention one in English without thinking of the other.

Those on the opposite side of this argument have chosen "pro-choice" as their label, and "pro-choice" has no effective accompanying metaphor. All that "pro-choice" brings to mind is the spoiled and narcissistic person "choosing" whatever happens to please him or her most, never mind morality and never mind the consequences. As in "Pro-choice people are spoiled and heartless and wickedly selfish," which is a description rather than a metaphor.

Whatever your position on abortion, it's clear that putting "pro-choice" up against "pro-life" is absurd; the "pro-choicers" need to find a metaphor as powerful as "Pro-life people are baby-defenders." (Their chances of doing so might be increased if they would set aside the idea that "Argument is combat" and that they must "win," and work from within the framework of "Argument is carpentry" or some comparable alternative.)

Finding metaphors

Finding metaphors isn't easy, which is why I advise people to watch for them and collect them as they would collect art objects; they're equally valuable. I know three techniques that are helpful: solving for Y with semantic features; converting features to reality statements, and vice versa; and dream-mapping. I'll describe each one briefly below.

Solving for Y

The most basic pattern for metaphors is "X is Y." Suppose that X is "baby-defenders" (from "Pro-life people are baby-defenders") and Y (as in "non-pro-life people are Y") is what we're hunting for. The steps we take are the following:

1. Identify the semantic features (like the semantic features [+FEATHERED] and [+ANIMATE] in the definition of "bird") that define the term "baby-defender," and list them underneath X.

2. List those same semantic features underneath Y.

3. Answer the question, "What else, in addition to a baby-defender, has all or most of that set of features?" and solve for Y.

Whether you do this alone on a piece of paper or a computer screen, or as a group using a flipchart or blackboard, the process is the same; working with a group is usually faster.

Converting features to reality statements, and vice versa

Sometimes a language has a handy word or very short phrase for a semantic feature, like [+FEATHERED] or [-PAGINATED] or [+NEGATIVE]; sometimes it doesn't. But human beings have a store of reality statments that make up the foundation of their perceptions of the world, such as "Sugar melts in water" and "February is the second month of the year." To convert those two statements to multi-word features would be cumbersome, but when you're hunting for a metaphor and you're having trouble completing your set of semantic features, converting back and forth between features and statements will often "prime the pump" sufficiently to get things moving.

It's particularly useful when, as often happens, you find yourself with two different words -- names for things that you _know_ are two different things because you can tell them apart when you encounter them -- but the list of semantic features you've come up with for them is identical. (Think about trying to explain how we know whether we're looking at sneakers or loafers or moccasins or sandals.) If you're working with semantic features and you get stuck, switch to reality statements and work back and forth between the two until the barrier falls.


Dream-mapping is a free-association technique; you've probably done something very like it, perhaps calling it "brain-mapping" or "clustering." Its most typical use is for the analysis of dreams, but it can be extremely helpful in finding metaphors.

To do the map, you write one term of the metaphor ("baby-defender," for example) in a small box in the center of a large sheet of paper or a blackboard. You draw a circle of seven ovals around the box, each connected to it with straight lines. In each oval -- working fast and without struggling -- you write a word or phrase that comes immediately to your mind when you hear the term "baby-defender." (If you can't think of seven, don't worry about it; just leave one oval blank and go on. You can add it when it occurs to you. If you think of eight, or more, just add more ovals.) Next, repeat the process for each of the words/phrases you wrote in the ovals.

Draw seven circles around each oval, linked to the oval with straight lines, and write in each circle a word or phrase that comes to your mind when you hear the term written in the oval. When it occurs to you that some term linked to one item also applies to another item, indicate that by a dotted line.

The goal of this technique is to get the nonlinear parts of your brain participating in your metaphor search. Often it will spring loose some crucial term that is exactly the one you need. It should be done quickly and loosely; it can be done by a group as effectively as by an individual. You can add as many levels of mapping as you want, keeping the levels apart by using different geometrical shapes or different colors. The only real requirement is lots of space to write on.

Using metaphors

When you've found the metaphor you need, the question is how you put it to use in mediation. What are the basic guidelines?

*First:* If possible, refuse to use the terms from the old metaphor; whatever the medium of communication, replace them with the terms from the new metaphor. For example, you would eliminate every term that goes with the "Argument is war" metaphor and replace it with the corresponding term from the "Argument is carpentry" metaphor.

*Second:* If that's not possible, and you have to use someone else's metaphor, fill on of that metaphor's roles and use its script. The steps you follow are:

1. Identify the metaphor being used by the other side.

2. Identify the roles in that metaphor. (For example, if the metaphor is football the roles are Player (andthe various positions, such as Quarterback), Coach, Cheerleader, Umpire, and Spectator.)

3. Determine what role each person on the other side is playing in the metaphor.

4. Choose whichever one of the roles is most appropriate for you.

5. Proceed from within that role, following its rules.

To explain a business principle to someone using The Schoolroom as governing metaphor, take the role of teacher. To explain a moral principle to someone using Football as the governing metaphor, take the role of coach. When you find that the role you need has already been taken, choose another -- there's always Assistant Coach in the football script and Friendly Custodian in the schoolroom script.

*Third:* When proposing a metaphor that will require major change, consider modulating through a bridge metaphor. For example, suggesting a change from a status quo metaphor of driving along a fixed route ("This company/family/group/enterprise is a car on the highway") to a target metaphor of exploring uncharted territory ("This company/family/group/enterprise is a spaceship in outer space") may be too big a leap to do all at once without causing confusion and alarm.

Cars must drive along on existing roads according to very rigid rules, with almost no option for exercising creativity or innovation; a spaceship in outer space would have enormously more freedom in its movements. The contrast between the two frameworks for behavior could be almost traumatic for people trying to shift from one to the other. If so, consider using the metaphor of the sailing ship ("This company/family/group is a sailing ship on the open sea") as a bridge metaphor before moving on to the spaceship stage. A sailing ship wouldn't have the freedom that a spaceship would have, but it has far more freedom than an automobile does.

*Fourth:* Look for common ground. When two metaphors are very far apart, it may not be possible to find an alternative metaphor that the two sides can share. Consider the example in which the man (operating out of the football metaphor) insists that the false statement he made was not a lie, and the woman (operating out of the schoolroom metaphor) insists that it was. The distance between the two metaphors is so vast that finding a single metaphor the two people could share is very unlikely. That either of the two would switch metaphors, even if a sharable one could be found, is equally unlikely.

In such a situation, explaining what the problem is -- that is, explaining that it's not the man's character or the woman's intelligence that's causing the disagreement, but the fact that they're using different metaphors -- will help. It doesn't change the facts, but it changes attitudes and makes negotiation possible. And in that negotiation, you can look for common ground.

The semantic difference here lies in the male (football-based) idea that lying is acceptable if it does no harm. Say to the woman: "Suppose an elderly acquaintance came to you wearing a new dress, obviously delighted with it, and asked you for your opinion about it. Suppose you think the dress is a terrible choice and that she looks awful. Are you obligated to tell her so?" Unless the woman in question is very unusual, she'll say no, and at that point you've found common ground.

You can demonstrate that there are going to be times when the woman, like the man, will say something that's false and not consider it evidence that she can't be trusted. When that has been established, it's possible to start negotiating ground rules for an agreement about which lies are acceptable and which aren't, when it's acceptable to lie and when it isn't, how much lying each side will tolerate, and any other factors that are necessary.


I used to preface my remarks about metaphors with a disclaimer...something like, "Of course, metaphors can't work miracles." I don't do that any longer; I've seen too many seemingly insoluble problems brought to swift and longlasting solution by the skilled use of metaphor. I know no more powerful or more valuable tool for resolving conflict.

Metaphor Information Sources


1. Camp, C. "Metaphor in Feminist Biblical Interpretation: Theoretical Perspectives." _Semeia_ 61 (1993), pp. 3-36; special issue on "Women, War, and Metaphor." (A good overview, in nontechnical language.)

2. Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson, 1980. _Metaphors We Live By_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Still the best introduction to current metaphor theory.)

3. See also my verbal self-defense books, which include detailed discussions of metaphors as perceptual filters and techniques for working with them -- in particular, _The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work_ (Prentice Hall 2000), and _Staying Well With the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense_ (MJF Books and Prentice Hall 1990). See also my book titled _The Language Imperative_ (Perseus 2000).


1. Metaphorik, at

2. Metaphor and Cognitive Science annotated bibliography, at

3. Metaphor Home Page, at

4. Metaphor Center, at

5. Metaphor and Metonymy Group, at (updated url to reflect move, May 2005)

6. Conceptual Metaphor Home Page, at

7. Union of International Organizations metaphor project, at -- in my opinion the most valuable metaphor information source on the Internet.

8. There is a long article by John Haynes, "Metaphors and Mediation," at It includes transcripts of mediation sessions in which metaphors are being used strategically.

[Or simply go to and type "metaphor" into the search box, which will bring up all the links above and many more.]

Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
Ozark Center for Language Studies
PO Box 1137
Huntsville, AR 72740-1137

Copyright © 2001 Suzette Haden Elgin


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