Clean Language questions are most often – and most usefully – used to ask about the metaphors a person uses. Being asked the questions helps to bring the metaphors to life, making new information available to the person.

But what if you’re not noticing metaphors yet? Where on earth are they?

Incidentally, a good definition of metaphor is given in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

Two pieces of academic research took transcripts of ordinary English conversation and counted the metaphors – and found 4 or 6 metaphors per minute respectively. But it all depends what you count as a metaphor! Virtually all English words can be traced to a metaphorical root, if you look them up in the etymological dictionary. There’s a particularly funny part of Steven Pinker’s ‘The Stuff of Thought’ in which he ‘counts the metaphors’ in one paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and it takes him about three pages.

In some occupations – the academic world, for example – figurative language (overt metaphor) is frowned upon and ‘trained out’. But plenty of metaphors are still there, particularly in verbs and prepositions. Time is almost always represented by spatial metaphors, for example.

In Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, Wendy Sullivan and I looked for spatial metaphors in the well-known piece by Marianne Williamson. The ones we noticed are italicised below:
“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we subconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Participants on our trainings learn to notice the kinds of metaphors people use casually, as well as the big, shiny, ‘unmissable’ metaphors, because these can be used as a way of connecting to the ‘unconscious mind’ which generated them.

The key to noticing metaphors is practice! Notice them in everything you read – newspapers, websites, etc. Notice them in advertising. And notice them in conversation. First you’ll notice the all-singing all-dancing ones. And as you practice, you’ll be spotting the more subtle ones!

(By the way, I wonder if you noticed that ‘spotting’ here is a metaphor? I’m not literally putting a coloured spot on each metaphor I notice!)

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