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Language Reveals Our Reality: Food for Thought

The other day, two friends were discussing current projects at work. I listened to their conversation with curiosity. Joe described his project as “a battle” while Karen used “a journey” to describe her experience. He laughingly pointed to the difference in their metaphors and I was struck by how the difference affected their approach to very similar situations.

“Listen deeply,” we are often told by communication experts. Though we nod sagely in response, what exactly are we agreeing to do? I suggest a critical first step is to attend to the metaphors those we are listening to utilize which frame their unique perspective on reality.

We learned in literature class that metaphors and similes add interest to our writing and speech. And while that is true, in this article we will concentrate on metaphors as more than a linguistic device. Let’s look instead at metaphor as a means to interpret the speaker (or writer’s) world.

Metaphor is used here as any circumstance when a person uses one conceptual category, circumstance or thing to define or describe another; essentially to understand and experience one thing in terms of something else.

Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson provide convincing evidence that metaphors may actually be people’s primary mode of mental operation. They argue that because the mind is “embodied” – that is, it experiences the world through the body in which it resides – people cannot help but conceptualize the world in terms of bodily perceptions. Our concepts of up-down, in-out, front-back, light-dark, warm-cold are all related to orientations and perceptions acquired through bodily senses.

“She is a top performer” indicates a vertical orientation while he is falling behind” indicates a horizontal one. In the book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson suggest that the metaphors through which people conceptualize abstract concepts influence the way in which they understand them. Furthermore, this understanding frames their actions which reinforces the metaphors, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider some familiar expressions people use when describing ideas as food, plants, and commodities. (Italics for metaphors are used throughout this article to make them stand out.)

Ideas Are Food

What he said left a bad taste in my mouth. These are nothing but half-baked ideas, and warmed over theories.  I can’t digest all these new ideas. Can you swallow that claim?

Doesn’t that argument smell fishy? Now here’s an idea you can really sink your teeth into. She devours information.  This is the meaty part of the paper.

Ideas Are Plants

She has a fertile imagination. Her ideas have come to fruition. That idea died on the vine. That’s a budding theory. The seeds of his great ideas were planted in his youth. He has a barren mind.

Ideas Are Commodities

There is always a market for good ideas. Great ideas are currency in the intellectual marketplace. It is important how you package your ideas.  She has been a source of valuable ideas.

What can we discern about the speakers of these sentences? It is no surprise that humans attempt to understand vague, abstract or complex concepts in terms of more familiar experiences. The point is that the metaphor a person selects to frame a concept/experience necessarily focuses attention on some aspects while ignoring others.

If ideas are commodities, then they must be marketable. Focusing attention on this metaphor emphasizes how these ideas will be received (bought) by other people and whether they are saleable. This is very different from an orientation that holds ideas are plants. If ideas are plants, instead of rushing to get them out the door and to crank out as many as possible, ideas can be allowed to ripen and mature, to come to fruition. For the speaker who holds ideas are food, they are to be digested. Many ideas can then be tasted and tried. Ideas are to be consumed by that speaker.

In listening deeply we are able to note how the speaker who orients to holding ideas as commodities places value externally. A belief is expressed that value is in the eyes of the beholder (or buyer). Once we recognize this belief, we can check out whether this is true in other parts of life for this person. If his orientation is external, he places importance on how he is perceived. What behaviors would follow from this orientation? How would he assess others? Where would he find meaning? What role would self-image play in his life?

Returning to the conversation with my friends, I note that Joe, who holds his experience as a battle, may see his role as a general and his direct reports as his battalion. He is more likely to see his organization as a hierarchy than an opportunity for collaboration and to interpret requests of him as orders and to issue commands that are non-negotiable. What becomes important when listening deeply to Joe is checking whether this orientation holds for the rest of his life. If so, what is the cost to him to hold life this way? What is missing for him?

Karen, holding her project as a journey, comes to it with many questions, approaches her direct reports as fellow travelers and mapmakers. Together they are attempting to find the best route, knowing that there may be delays and that they may be sidetracked but that the pit stops may be as important/useful as the final destination. What can we learn about Karen’s behavior in the rest of her life? What challenges might she face when called upon to make executive decisions? Is she able to give compelling directions? What is the cost to her to hold life with this perspective?

Since metaphors are particularly useful, as they define roles, how the speaker sees himself and others, becomes clear to the listener. From here, an understanding of the speaker’s experience of the world emerges. Often, metaphors become an excellent predictor of the behavior the speaker will naturally assume. Knowing this, the deep listener can anticipate breakdowns.

When I worked with teachers, I heard many metaphors that disclosed the teacher’s orientation to his students. My classroom is a zoo, or my kids are really blossoming told me a great deal about how that teacher perceived of himself, his role, his students and education.

If a speaker sees himself as a gardener, his direct reports are plants to be cultivated. If he is a shepherd, they are sheep, unable to think for themselves. Furthermore, do these speakers think of their family members, friends and associates this way? What behavior would be predicated by these ways of orienting to others? To themselves?

We can begin to develop the competence of listening deeply by taking note of the metaphors we hear. We start with ourselves. Becoming aware of the metaphors we use, holding questions about the natural behavior that follows from this perspective and orientation, checking it out and anticipating breakdowns make the command, “listen deeply” indeed a powerful one – for ourselves and those with whom we wish to connect. And while listening deeply is a complex competence. Beginning to pay close attention to metaphors is a powerful way to begin.

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