Category Archives: metaphor

Language, power and belonging

I was recently sent a terms of reference for a consultancy with a medium-sized not for profit which contained terms and expressions which would probably be completely opaque to an outsider. The consultancy was expected to determine how far a particular function in the organisation was helping  to ‘fulfil the vision’. It asked whether current standards of work ‘match the aspiration and vision’ of the organisation? Are aspects of the work carried out ‘strategically’ so that staff are working in ‘alignment’ with the organisational mission and objectives? The language was used unselfconsciously and unproblematically, as though everyone would understand what was meant. Moreover, I wondered how we would  know when staff in an organisation were in alignment, or that standards were matching aspirations? What would we look for to be sure?

I have commented in previous posts on the systemic assumptions that are implicit in such language, but what struck me additionally this time was how excluding it was. In order to engage with the terms of reference, and therefore apply for the consultancy, you have to be a member of this particular club and be fluent in the language. This is equally true if you want to engage critically with it, and the assumptions behind the terms used. It would take a good deal of confidence and courage to begin to question what is being said as a way of enquiring into what it is that the contractor really needs to know. There is an obvious power relationship between those who have work to offer and those who would seek it, but this is amplified by the nature of the terminology being used. The language of the terms of reference begins to frame the kind of discussion that is possible. Continue reading


Caught up in anxiety IV

I have been worrying away, caught up in my own anxiety if you like, about the spatial metaphors that seem so common sense when we start to talk about strategy in groups. So how can we possibly move forward unless we work out where it is that we want to be? Unless we have a map with an intended destination how do we know what to do when different options present? When I go out of the door in the morning do I turn left or right, a decision which is only possible if I know where I am going?

These ways of conceptualising what we need to be doing when we contemplate strategy  are very powerful, and to be appearing to take a position that seems to want to destabilise imagining a new future together can be experienced by participants in a group as a complete violation of the obvious. I think participants can sometimes experience a strong bodily reaction of frustration and suppression. I witness this as people visibly shift in their seats, mutter semi-audibly and clearly struggle with what they consider is the prevention of the blindingly obvious. I experience their discomfort with what it is I am saying when I am suggesting an alternative to spatial and directional metaphors. This makes me, in my turn, uncomfortable because I realise we are starting to struggle with what we mean by what we say.

Why are the reactions so strong? (And as I write this I am finding it almost impossible not to use spatial metaphors myself).

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics from the University of Berkeley and has written extensively about how it is only possible for us to conceptualise  and rationalise, even in mathematics and physics, because we have developed metaphor. Moreover, the metaphors we use arise out of our bodily experience. As human bodies which have fronts and  backs we have a corporeal understanding of movement towards things and away from things. Quoting other research, Lakoff states that in most sign languages from around the world reference to the past  consistists  of a motion with the hands behind the signer. In addition, the metaphor of the journey is widely used to understand our lived experience – some of us conceive of our lives as a journey (and how many of us have done exercises in workshops where we are asked to describe our development in just such terms?), where we might lose our way or find ourselves at a crossroads, or not be sure which direction to take. We put the past behind us, we look forward to events. (An interesting exception to this is Aymara, a Chilean language of the Andes where it is the past which is ‘in front’ because you can immediately see the results of what you have done).

Because the metaphors we use to think about the future are embodied, rooted in our lived experience of the world, we may experience a bodily reaction to someone who appears to be cutting across our way of understanding the world and what it is we are engaged in. If I am encouraging a group to notice what is happening now, in the living present it may feel very counter-intuitive to what we ‘should be doing’. So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified in the future. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, when the dominant mode is based in will, intentionality, then the dominant tense tends to be the future tense.

So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified as a point in the future towards which we are travelling. Along the line of time between where we are now and where we want to be be there will be landmarks, milestones, which we can use to orient ourselves as to whether we are travelling in the right direction.

In arguing that metaphors are useful because they help us rationalise and conceptualise arising out of our bodily experience of the world, Lackoff also warns against taking metaphorical language literally. Rather than being a best guess, an imaginative exercise in the face of an unknowable future, where what is most important is the way we negotiate, agree and disagree, pay attention to the relationships which are forming, strategy can become a fixed plan with milestones and targets for which employees will be ‘held accountable’. By ignoring, or perhaps failing to appreciate  the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of what we are doing we fall into the trap of believing that can predict the future.  We pay more attention to what we are willing, rather than what we encounter when we proceed with intention.