Best Way To Use Metaphorical Thinking When Coaching

Why successful coaches use metaphors to solve problems.

When I was in school, I was terrible at spelling. I would hang my head in shame after each test. I couldn’t put the letters in the correct order because I saw the image, not the word. This is because when I was about two years old and learning the alphabet, we were taught using pictures. “A” was a red, juicy apple and “Z” was a smiling Zebra. I still remember the cheeky little hen beneath the “H”.

The pictures on the alphabet poster that was stuck to the wall of our kitchen taught me how to make sense of something I wasn’t familiar with by comparing it to something I understood. Like those pictures, metaphors bridge the gap between our lived experiences and new situations, explaining life in simpler and more familiar terms.

Use metaphors to clarify your coaching services

We’re used to thinking in images. Metaphorical thinking helps us learn and grow; it helps us make connections and create stories, so the world makes a little more sense. This is why metaphors are so important in coaching and counselling. It helps release people from their limitations by helping them articulate a feeling or situation they’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.

Metaphors are a powerful tool to help coaches clarify meaning in the midst of overwhelming emotions or complex environments. For example, “to keep your head above water” is a great metaphor used in both business situations and personal experiences.

Let’s look at the benefits of using metaphors in your coaching practice and how you can unlock its transformative power. In this article we will look at:

  • The value of metaphorical thinking in coaching conversations.
  • Unlocking the client journey using metaphors.
  • How to use metaphors when coaching.
  • What to avoid when using metaphors.
  • How to use metaphors when marketing your coaching business.

Metaphors influence us every day

We utter about 6 metaphors a minute in conversation. “Whenever we describe anything abstract – ideas, feelings, thoughts, emotions, concepts – we instinctively resort to metaphors”, writes James Geary in his book I is an Other: The secret life of metaphors and how it shapes the way we see the world.

“Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.”

We use metaphors to explain and simplify concepts, to more easily grasp its meaning. Click To Tweet

People unconsciously perceive their life and work experiences in metaphorical terms. Metaphors help us articulate a situation or feeling in a safe and acceptable way.

However, obscure metaphors create more confusion. You know what it means when your stomach is in knots or has butterflies, but not what it’s like when your heart feels like an aeroplane. Stay away from obscure metaphors; they do not make you seem smarter.

Metaphorical thinking stimulates problem solving

What is the value of using metaphors in the coaching conversation?

The International Coaching Federation (ICF), lists the use of metaphors and analogy in conversations with clients as one of its core competencies, “Communicating effectively during coaching sessions, using language that has the greatest positive impact on the client”.

Coaches use metaphors as a tool for exploring situations with their clients and helping them through cognitive blocks. Once clients connect their true feelings with the image they’ve created, they can work through their problems more easily.

Metaphors are shortcuts to your subconscious; it allows you to get to the heart of the matter more easily. By using images and storytelling, clients will usually reveal their true desires and what’s keeping them from fulfilling it. It is your responsibility as a coach to search for the meaning in their stories.

For example, a client might explain their start-up business as a seedling struggling to grow in dry soil, surrounded by invasive alien plants that absorb huge amounts of water, making the environment unfriendly. Such a metaphor likely points to the client’s unhappiness with foreign businesses “absorbing” resources, like funding or other business opportunities.

Metaphorical thinking inspires creativity

The power of metaphorical thinking when coaching

By encouraging clients to use metaphors, you’ll gain a richer picture of their experiences. Use metaphorical thinking as a communication tool to unlocking the client’s journey from where they are now, to where they ultimately want to be.

  • Aids in understanding: Use metaphors to clarify ideas and concepts. Having your client refer to something they know deeply to help them get a handle on something they know less well, will enable them to process what they experience in more easily understood terms.
  • Increase awareness: Helping clients become more aware of their usual metaphorical thinking goes a long way toward better understanding the way they’re shaping their environments, both professionally and personally.
  • The method of powering up ideas: Metaphorical questions can spark your client’s imagination. Opening them up to new possibilities and paths to achieving the desired outcome, which may lead to a solution otherwise not before thought of.
  • Shifting perspectives and gaining insight: Choosing to tell a story instead of expressive what isn’t working and how to change it, bypasses the rational left brain and connects with the emotive and more creative right brain. Providing an alternate and more indirect path to discovering opportunities and outcomes.
  • Solve problems: Metaphors stimulate the development of an action plan and its implementation. You shift their frame of reference to make fresh connections. Metaphors open the door to discovery by comparing what they know to what they don’t know.

Metaphors influence us every day

Tips for using metaphors when coaching

Metaphors provide insight into your client’s life, helping you understand how they see the world. You can also use metaphorical thinking as a way of raising awareness of sensitive issues in a non-threatening way

A common description of coaching is “holding up a mirror”, where you enable the client to see themselves and their lives in a new perspective. Metaphors help you give clients a perspective they had not previously considered, helping them uncover new methods or paths to their desired outcomes.

Elle Wilks’s research paper, Using Metaphors in Coaching, lists 4 ways coaches can use metaphors to enter a client’s inner world and explore issues and reach solutions from a deeper source of knowledge:

  1. Identify a metaphor: Recognise what the client’s metaphor is referring to, don’t assume you know, ask for clarification.
  2. Develop the metaphor: Encourage the client to expand the use of their metaphor. Build on their metaphor and use it to delve deeper into the situation.
  3. Work with the metaphor: Dig deeper and follow the natural evolution of their story, all the while uncovering buried
  4. Develop changes: Help them move forward by using the metaphor to unlock action steps that will lead them to a new way of thinking about the issue or problem.

As the coach, your role is to be highly attuned to your client’s reactions toward their chosen metaphor and the story it reveals.

Tip for using metaphors in coaching

What to avoid when using metaphors in your coaching conversation

A quick break-down of what to avoid when using metaphors when coaching. This list was created by Robbie Blair for Lit Reactor, titled “6 ways you’re molesting your metaphors”. I have adapted the list to suit this article’s intended purpose – using metaphors in coaching.

  1. The Mixaphor – mixing metaphors: “Anger bottled up inside falls like a lead balloon”. Don’t try to be clever. Rather aim to use metaphors that simplify and aids your client in understanding.
  2. Cliché metaphors: People think of themselves and their problems as unique, they don’t want to be associated with the crowd. Use metaphors that fit their unique circumstances.
  3. Ambiguous metaphors: Stay away from metaphors that need to be explained that defeats its purpose. You don’t want metaphors to be open to Otherwise, it might miss the mark, and your message will lose its impact.
  4. Nearly literal metaphors: Saying to a client that “his love dealt you a heavy blow” when you know your client was physically abused might not be the best route for metaphorical thinking.
  5. Referencing outside shared experiences: For your metaphor to make an impact, it needs to make reference to something your client has previously experienced, either directly or Otherwise, it will just add confusion and distract from its intended purpose.
  6. Over-extending metaphors: If you take your metaphor too far, it might dilute its impact and effectiveness. Keep your metaphors in check.

Robbie ends the article by saying: “Maybe you’ve successfully avoided the temptation to molest metaphors in these disturbing ways. Be honest with yourself though. If you’re abusing these helpless pieces of figurative language, you must stop yourself now”.

Getting naked, by Pat Williams

Image source: Amazon books

Getting Naked: A powerful coaching book rich with metaphors

Recently, The Institute for Life Coach Training did an interview with Dr Pat Williams about the power of metaphors. Check out the video below.

Pat is a self-professed elder of coaching with 35 years of experience in the coaching industry. I mention Pat in this article because he has just launched his new book, Getting Naked: On being emotionally transparent at the right time, the right place, with the right person.

The book is about transcending mediocrity by being authentic, and each chapter is awarded a colourful metaphor as a title, for example, “50 Shades of play”.

During the interview, Pat mentions that “we all have a shadow closet where we’ve put the dreams and aspirations we’ve given up on”. What a beautiful and concrete metaphor! If you’re thinking of buying his book and would like me to post a review, leave a comment below.

The Coaching Game with Laurie Lawson & Pat Williams

The interview also took a quick look at The Coaching Game, a tool developed by coaches for coaches to expand your clients’ points of view. It provides new ideas on a thought or issues your client might be trying to resolve by using associative cards and photographic images. Put simply; it’s a metaphor for the discoveries that unfold as you play.

Points of you, the coaching game

Image source:

How to use metaphorical thinking when marketing your coaching business

In 1990 consumer research revealed that most communication is non-verbal and that most people think in images.

It’s difficult for people to envision what coaching with you will look like, which is why you need to create a more concrete image of your coaching services. One way to effectively do this is by using metaphors.

Ridley Scott pitched his idea for the movie “Alien” by selling it as “Jaws in space”. Immediately Scott was able to create a persuasive image and convey his idea by making a connection between something familiar with something unfamiliar.

Make it easy for potential clients to understand and remember your message by using metaphors. Benefits include:

  • Improving comprehension, making it easier for people to understand the objective and benefits of your coaching.
  • Higher recall, because we remember images better than words.
  • Emotional connections also help lock in the message to memory.
  • Moving them toward action. Use metaphors to create associations.

Use metaphors when marketing your coaching business

For people to move toward action and invest in your coaching services, you need to create a connection between something they don’t care about (your services) and something they do care about (the benefits your services provide).

Questions to ask yourself when creating your coaching brand metaphor:

  • What are the products and services you deliver and what benefits do they provide your clients?
  • How do your deliver value and how do you represent this value to clients?
  • Where in your clients’ lives do your services fit? For example, career development.
  • How are you different from your competitors, what makes you stand out?
  • What is it like having you as a coach, what can clients expect?


Metaphors help us interpret the world around us and when used correctly can create a world where anything is possible.

Use metaphorical thinking when coaching to:

  • Understand your client’s better.
  • Clarify ideas and concepts.
  • Help clients become more aware of their environments.
  • Open up new possibilities and experiences.
  • Solve problems and develop action plans.
  • Improve your marketing.

Do you have any insightful metaphors you’d like to share? I would love to hear them.

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