Tip Seven, Continued: Seek to Bring Your Communication Style into Congruence with Others in the Dialogue

This post continues our discussion of congruence in communication styles.  In my last post, I shared a brief history of some of the science around interpersonal connection.  I also discussed a few of the tools of connection, including a very brief overview body language and physically matching and pacing with a person.  These are two important tools for helping to build subconscious connections.  This post focuses on metaphor, and its importance as a tool for connecting. There are several “layers” to metaphor, and we will discuss them in turn.

ButterfliesTo begin, what is a metaphor? Metaphor is often defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable like “we fought hard for a place at the table,” when what we are actually saying is that we worked with others to ensure that we were involved in a process. Or metaphor may refer to a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract. For example: the amounts of money being lost by the company were enough to make it a metaphor for an industry that was teetering. 

All of us use metaphor, often without even thinking of it as such.  Have you ever said something along the lines of “Just between you, me and the fence post?” Or referred to something that became overly complicated by saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth?” In addition to using metaphor frequently, we each have our own preferences and comfort zones around the types of metaphor that we use. If you think about metaphor, there are many categories.  There are metaphors that refer to cooking, sports, warfare, weather, sewing, building, machinery, and more.  Examples include, metaphor references like: “we will hold our ground,” “the whole nine yards,” “a stitch in time saves nine,” “I’m just a cog in this machine,” and thousands of others.visual-metaphor

Metaphor can be an incredibly powerful tool, when we seek to connect with others. People connect with metaphors.  People express a share sense of country and culture through metaphor. Presidents become “great communicators” and leaders rally others to action through their choice of metaphor.  “Tear this wall down, Mr. Gorbachev!” of “We have drawn a line in the sand and we will not stop until the bells of freedom ring again in the streets of Kuwait City!”

Naturally, a group of marines may, as a group, use more references to sports, or warfare, than a women’s quilting group might, and people who work as professional chefs may, likewise, prefer metaphors that connect to roots in the kitchen. When we find ourselves in an important dialogue with someone that we believe that it is important to influence or connect with, it may be worth our while to be more thoughtful and conscious about our metaphor choices.  Metaphors, at this level, are very dependent on culture, life experience, and the listener’s own work and life community.  When I worked as a professional communicator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, there was, for example, a very specific workplace set of metaphors that were highly influenced the high proportion of engineers and physicists in the workforce.  So, for example, people often referred to their address as their “vector” and mechanical and engineering metaphors were commonplace.  So, if we are seeking a sound connection with an older person, our metaphor choice may be different than a young college student.  If we are connecting with a man with engineering background, our word choice may be different than our word choice with we are seeking to connect with a woman with a strong financial background.  When seeking to communicate the same concern, this might look as simple as the difference between using the phrase “those gears aren’t meshing” versus “those numbers just don’t balance.”

The power of word choice is amazing and often one camp or another will carry the day by the power with which they characterize another’s ideas.  These metaphors help to build and reinforce our own cognitive biases and beliefs. While an idea is purely an idea, once it is labeled as a “liberal” idea, or as a “right-wing idea” we are already influenced and either more prone or less prone to accept it.  People often seek to clothe controversial actions in metaphor.  Think of common titles and their affect on us.  Had the Homeland Security Department, been named the Department of Compliance with Government Travel and Banking Restrictions, would that not have carried very different connotations?  Metaphor can simply attribute things to certain people and carry certain impact.  For example, one 1986 study revealed that the identical disarmament proposal met with 90% approval when it was attributed to Ronald Regan, and only 44% approval when it was attributed to Mikial Gorbachev. So, the power to affect the acceptance of ideas is extremely dependent on the language used to float them and to defend them.

Next time we will focus on even deeper and more subconscious metaphors that have great power to influence us!

Copyright Bruce J. MacAllister, 2013,  All rights reserved

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