Harnessing the Power of Metaphor

Sue Stafford, Ph.D.

Metaphor is ubiquitous. Once thought of as rare and merely ornamental compared to literal language, current research suggests metaphor is just the opposite. It is now understood to be common in everyday communication. For example, a 1989 analysis of television programs found that speakers used one metaphor for every 25 words spoken.[1] It is estimated that we utter a metaphor every ten to twenty five words we speak—nearly six metaphors a minute!

If you are thinking, “I can’t grasp how that could possibly be,” you’ve just used a metaphor! Understanding is grasping. See what I mean? There, I’ve just used one—understanding is seeing.

Metaphor actually plays a significant role in cognition. Comprehending one thing in terms of another thing shapes our attitudes, beliefs, and actions; it shapes our views of the world and of ourselves.[2] When we view understanding as grasping, our notion of understanding inherits characteristics from the physical experience of grasping. When we literally grasp something, we take hold of it, we possess it, it becomes close to us. Our view of understanding inherits these very same features.

When I understand a concept, I take hold of it and it becomes mine. To help another person understand something, we devise methods to help them take hold of it and make it theirs. Thus teachers employ classroom exercises that engage students in the learning process, thereby helping them to make the material theirs. Teachers develop review exercises to help students hold on to what they have grasped over time. If you think this just sounds like plain old common sense, you are right. Because we all have internalized the metaphor understanding is grasping, we naturally think of understanding in this way.

Take Flight Workshops capitalize on this power of metaphor. During the workshop, participants internalize key aviation metaphors and learn how to transfer their understanding of the workshop experience to their work lives and beyond. Take Flight metaphors create a new reality in the boardroom or classroom in the same way that viewing understanding as grasping creates a reality in all of us.

[1] Gentner, Dedre, “The Career of Metaphor,” Psychological Review, 2005, Vol 112, No. 1, 193-216

[2] Geary, James, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World, HarperCollins, 2011.