General Eisenhower to soldier: "Sarge, give me an assessment of the military situation."
Soldier: "Sir, picture a doughnut. We're the hole."
Quoted in Metaphorically Selling
The brain considers new information from the point of view of what it already knows and remembers, so the use of good metaphors is an effective way to communicate. Metaphors facilitate getting your message across in every area of your life, including dispute resolution. Those who have been reading my posts here for a while know that I have recommended metaphor use in the past; I am a metaphor advocate.
A metaphor is simply a way of communicating. It's a shortcut to instant understanding. Think of it as a mental equation in which something is compared to something else. Metaphors make complex and unfamiliar things or ideas simple and familiar to the listener, because they compare the unknown to what the listener already knows and accepts.
Information + Metaphor = "I see what you mean!"
Dr. Daniel Willingham puts it this way in Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. (The title of the section from which I have taken this excerpt is "Understanding Is Remembering in Disguise;" a great way to encapsulate the value of metaphor!)
[We] understand new ideas (things [we] don't know) by relating them to old ideas (things [we] do know). ...
The fact that we understand new ideas by relating them to things we already know helps us to understand some principles that are familiar to every teacher [and many skillful negotiators and mediators]. One principle is the usefulness of analogies.
Analogies and metaphors are cousins, both drawing similarities between two different things. Both can assist in understanding. Are you a user?
I know you use analogies everyday. Some examples from Metaphorically Selling:
- "Chew on an idea
- "Plow" through your work
- Return a "mountain" of phone messages
- Check your "inbox" emails
- "Surf" the web
- "Iron out the wrinkles in a speech
- "Mine" data
And are you using them in helping clients to resolve conflict? They're a good way to grease the mediation wheels. (Nah, I don't like that one either. Please suggest something better.)