Metaphors are our friends -or- You are a peach (but without that fuzzy butt-crack thing…)

In my previous post I suggested that all observation is theory based. Your theories about how the world operates, or should operate, determine what you see, and how you interpret what you see.

One of the best ways to understand our own theories and the theories of others is by analyzing the metaphors we and they use. Most people regard metaphors as devices for “spicing up” language, but they are far more than that. To use a metaphor implies a way of thinking or a way of seeing something. We use metaphors when we are attempting to describe or understand one thing in terms of another. In fact much modern research argues that we learn in metaphors – by comparing new things to things we already know.

Like lenses, metaphors tend to focus on specific aspects of a thing, while completely ignoring others. For example, a person saying to me, “You are a stud” (a very common occurrence) is drawing attention to my studly aspects, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that I might also occasionally be a marshmallow, a bore, a pig, a saint, a monster, a recluse and a sweetheart.

In a very real sense, when I use metaphors to describe something to you, I am really describing my perspective more than I am describing the thing.

A good example of what I am talking about comes from the writings of Dr. Robert Solomon. Dr. Solomon suggests that one way to recognize what kind of love people are seeking or describing is through the kinds of metaphors they use. The metaphor we use when talking about love shapes and reflects the way we behave with a partner. Dr. Solomon outlines a number of metaphors for love and describes the consequences of using each:

Love as a Game. We often hear people talking about love as if it were a contest in which one person emerges the winner. The term itself is a common one: the game of love. People “play the field,” often trying to “score.” Strategies – including lying and flattery – that lead to domination are common: after all, “All’s fair…”  “Playing hard to get” is another common tactic. For most game players, relationships are short lived.

Love as a Fair Exchange. This view of love is based on the economic model of receiving fair value for one’s goods and services. People who adopt this metaphor talk about their relationship being a  “good arrangement” and say they are getting “a good (or lousy) deal” from their partners. When things go wrong, the complaint is, “It isn’t worth it anymore.” As these metaphors suggest, the overriding question for these love traders is, “What am I getting out of this?” The value of the relationship is measured by whether the return on one’s investment (of time, energy, money, good will, and so on) is worth the effort.

Love as Communication. Some people (including a few students in communication courses, I fear) measure love in terms of how well the lovers send and receive messages. For them, Dr. Solomon suggests, the essential moment is the “heavy conversation.” “We really get through to each other,” they say proudly. Their “feedback” is good, and “openness” is the ultimate goal, regardless of whether the messages are supportive or hostile. In other words, in the communication model, expression of feelings is more important than the content of those emotions. The result of this attitude is interaction that is all form and little substance: making love as opposed to loving. Communication is important in a loving relationship, of course, but as a means, and not an end in itself. When expression of feelings becomes more important than the content of those feelings, something is wrong.

Love as Work. Some people view love as an important job, and their language reflects this attitude. They “work on,” “work out,” or “work at” the relationship. They see nothing wrong with having fun, but their primary objective is to “build” a successful relationship in the face of life’s inevitable obstacles. Dr. Solomon points out that some devotees of the work model pick the most inept or inappropriate partners “rather like buying a rundown shack” for the challenge. They feel somehow superior to couples who are merely happy together, and admire those who have survived years of fights and other pain for “making it work.”

Love as a Flame. Dr. Solomon states that “red-hot lovers act as if they were Mr. Coffee machines, bubbling over, occasionally overflowing, getting too hot to handle, and occasionally bursting from too much pressure.” Partners who expect this sort of emotional fire can become disappointed when things “cool down” and may look for ways to “spice up” their relationship. Unfortunately, the likelihood of those flames of love burning brightly for a long period is slim; and rather than settling for mere warmth, these romantic pyromaniacs frequently find themselves looking for a new flame.

Whether we are leaders or consultants seeking to better understand how organizational members view their own organizational reality, or just individuals seeking to identify our own perceptions and attitudes, metaphors can serve as huge red flags. They can focus our attention and give us invaluable insights into the way we and others see the world around us.

Most organizational theories have an accompanying metaphor.  Each one is useful because it helps draw our attention to certain aspects of organizations. They are not true or false, right or wrong. They are merely perspectives on organizations – lenses to help focus our observation. The key to better understanding any given organization is to utilize each in turn: learning everything you can from one lens, then discarding it and reaching for the next. Each theory will offer useful insights into the organization we are trying to observe. By looking at anything from multiple points of view we can learn much more about it than if we are trapped in a single perspective.

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