Hearing what other people are really saying

Much is made of metaphor in literature and life. What the early developers of NLP did differently was to take the metaphors people used to describe situations literally. Simple as it seems, this was a revolutionary step. 

In a conversation with a friend the other day she said “it was a block (stopping her).” Taking her statement literally, I asked her where the block was and what it looked like. “It’s like this big block right in front of me.” If you want to move forward and there is a big block in front of you, that is a stopper. Over and over in conversations you will hear metaphors like that. The funny thing is, they are not randomly chosen. They are actual reflections of the way someone conceives of a situation.

Taking the metaphor as a literal description allows you to step inside it, and consider ways of working with the metaphor instead of letting it define you. Charles Faulkner explored this work extensively in the 90s and now Andy Austin has done a lot to further develop it and formalize ways of addressing these kinds of limiting thinking. Here’s a story illustrating the possibilities that can be opened up with an understanding of our personal metaphors.

Hearing What Other People are Really Saying

The following is a guest post from Andrew T. Austin.



I once met a very distressed lady on the first morning of a workshop. Prior to the workshop she had been to see her doctor, and I imagine she looked just as distressed when he saw her as when I saw her.

“I’m feeling very unbalanced,” she told the good doctor, “I feel like I’m heading for a fall.” She explained that she has been walking a bit of a tightrope her entire life, and that she finds her life very difficult. “I try not to put a foot wrong,” she said, “I always tread very carefully.” The good doctor saw her distress, listened to the way she spoke those words, and suggested that she was depressed and offered a prescription for anti-depressants and a referral to a cognitive behavioral therapist. Then she had even more to be distressed about!

Usually when a client communicates in metaphor like this, the client is only partly aware of it, the communication gets completely ignored, and the listener generates illogical conclusions instead of really hearing what she is saying. I call this cognitive deafness.  

A person speaks, we hear the noise that their vocal apparatus makes, and we completely ignore what they actually said. “I know what you mean,” we tell them, in order to maintain the illusion of understanding. Despite the client being totally explicit about their experience, it usually gets ignored. Cognitive deafness.But what if we responded directly to the metaphoric communication?

One way to do this is to draw a picture of what the client said and show it to them. She said she was feeling “very unbalanced, heading for a fall, walking a bit of a tight rope, trying not to put a foot wrong, treading carefully.” So I make a line drawing of someone wobbling on a tightrope, high off the ground. I show it to her and ask, “Is it like this?” Chances are rather good that it will be. The client gets to comment on my artistic and listening ability, and/or tell me that I’ve got it totally wrong and offer corrections. “The rope is much farther off the ground, and the ground is all jagged rocks; if I fell off the rope I’d be hurt badly.” This way we both find out if I have heard them accurately or not.

“Depressed” is a very general nominalization, applied to so many people for such different reasons, so it tells us very little. From discussing her metaphor many things became clear. She had a fixed path in life, one that didn’t suit her. She wasn’t much of a high wire act, and never really felt particularly grounded or down to earth, despite her best intentions. Her tightrope gave her an elevated position, but she had to continuously tread very carefully, in case she put a foot wrong. There was a lot of tension and there were high expectations that she was trying to live up to. This isolated her from others; she walked this fine line alone. In being the high wire act that others looked up to, she gave the impression of looking down on others. She didn’t feel that way of course, she just felt miserable. Antidepressants wouldn’t change any of that; in fact, it might even help her maintain this miserable act a little longer.

Years ago a client would come and see me and tell me something like, “I feel like I’m at the end of my tether. I can’t hang on any longer, I need help.” My brain would go, “Whoah! That sound’s bad! Depressed, suicidal thoughts?” and like the decent therapist I believed myself to be I’d enquire into suicidal ideation, negative beliefs, troubled emotional affect and so on. I’d consider making sure I refer him to his GP for a medical evaluation and might spend the night worrying that he might kill himself after he left the session.


There’s nothing wrong in any of those things, of course, it’s fairly standard practice, but here’s the point: That wasn’t what he said. None of it. All of that stuff was what I inferred that he meant; it was all content that I imposed upon him. Metaphorical utterances are often dismissed – even by ourselves – as “just figures of speech that don’t mean anything.”


This is the sorry state of affairs that I sought to address with my Metaphors of Movement work. By listening carefully to a client’s metaphors, we can start to hear things inside the client’s experience that they themselves are usually totally unaware that they are communicating. As a result, we can get inside the structure of the problem really quickly, and to many clients, it can feel like mindreading, because I can tell them things that they were only half aware of.

What this client actually said was, “I feel like I am at the end of my tether, I can’t hang on any longer, I need help.” But I didn’t hear him say that, because I was too busy filling in gaps with how I understood things to be, not how he communicated them to be. I’d have missed the fact that he was communicating in metaphor and as a result I’d have unwittingly ignored that metaphor.

So what exactly is a tether, anyway? I just looked it up on the internet. “A tether is a cord, fixture, or signal that anchors something movable to a reference point which may be fixed or moving.” So that’s quite clear. The other bit is a bit ambiguous though, “I can’t hang on any longer.” “Hanging on” might mean waiting, or it might be that he is metaphorically gripping the metaphorical tether much like a man might hang on to a rope.

I get two main images from this: 1. Tethered like an impatient cow in a field, or possibly 2. A man dangling in the air hanging on to a tether that is tied above him. There are other possible variations, but you get the idea.

So, let’s listen again to what he said, and only make logical inferences that match the metaphor.

1. It is clear that the man isn’t free. He is tethered.

2. He probably isn’t making much progress. He isn’t getting anywhere. Perhaps he is pivoting around in circles.

3. He’s tied and unable to escape the situation.

4. He’s been hanging around too long and needs help.

5. He’s at the end of his rope.


Next I can feed these inferences back to the client, in order to respond directly to his metaphoric communication, and also to check which of them match his experience. If they don’t match, at least they demonstrate that his brief story has been heard accurately, even if it hasn’t yet been understood correctly, and it gives the client opportunities to correct my understanding.


It turns out that his experience is like the cow in the field, rather than a man dangling from a rope. Then I ask some very directional questions: “What is to the left of the tether? What is to the right? What is in front?” and so on. Together we discover the larger context around the tether, which acts as a point of reference. It turns out that he is indeed tethered like a cow in a field and has been for some time. “I just need to break free from this life,” he laments. “So you feel like you are being milked for all you are worth?” I might offer. It fits the metaphor and starts to hint at identity issues. “You are treated like livestock, left on your own to chew things over. You spend a lot of time ruminating?”


This is a lot different from suggesting to him that he might be suicidal. This is communication that actually connects with his experience. More important, it is communication that connects with what he told us. That connection has been found by research to be a major factor in producing change.


Metaphors of Movement is about joining your client inside their experience, helping them discover it and clarify it, and offering them possibilities for changing it. If you’d like to know much more about how to do this, join us from April 13-16, 2013 in Boulder, Colorado.

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