Beyond Conscious Metaphor

For the last several months we have been discussing tips for improving your effectiveness for important communications.  My March 18, 2013 post reviewed the first six of my twelve “tips” for effective communication.  Since that time, among other posts, I have posted three additional tips on my seventh, and perhaps most comprehensive tip about “seeking congruence” when you communicate with others. My previous posts on congruence have focused on mirroring body language, and choosing relatable metaphors, depending on the experience of the person or group with whom you are communicating. This post addresses the final aspects of Tip Seven, which focuses on appreciating word choice at the deepest possible levels – levels, which may be entirely subconscious to your listener.  This discussion will then move us into Tip Eight: Appreciating the power of word choice combined with non-verbal considerations for your communication.

Our discussions of congruence have focused on different levels:

  • Assessing and subtly matching your listener’s body language, such as posture, vocal pace, facial expressions, to connect with them then using body language to pace with the other person, and ultimately using body language to lead a person to a desired state of comfort where those in the conversation are all comfortable with the setting and the connection;
  • Making conscious choices about our analogies, and metaphors. We must remember that the words we use to “frame” the issue have an impact on how others will view things and how readily they will connect with you. So, using a sports metaphor with a group of athletes may be a better choice than using cooking metaphors.
  • Appreciating that framing and metaphor choices are typically highly culture and subculture-linked.  So we must use caution when we choose idiomatic expressions that not everyone may relate to.

This post takes our discussion beyond the sort of culture-linked areas we have discussedVacation 2 so far, and deeper into the most sophisticated aspects of congruent communication with others.  Let’s start our discussion with a quick and simple question. Think about your last vacation.  What stands out to you most? For example it might be the beautiful sunset you saw looking out over the ocean in Malibu, or it could be the sound of marimbas wafting up the beach during your last Caribbean trip, or, perhaps it was something as simple as a delicious meal or the closeness you felt visiting a close family member.  Take a moment and write down in just two or three words what stood out the most.

When you think about it, most humans perceive their surroundings through fairly limited channels. Absent a disability, most of us gain information about everything through three principal channels: we see things, we hear things, and we feel things.  Seeing and hearing are fairly self-evident senses. Feeling things includes our tactical senses – for example what we feel when we touch something or something comes in contact with us, things we taste, things we smell, and our feelings when we process something emotionally, such as fear, love, mistrust, anger, and other emotional responses to our interactions with our environment.

Again, absent a disability, all of us use all of our senses in our communications. We watch for non-verbal information, we listen to the words and sounds, and we often convey emotional information using touch itself or a metaphor or compelling story in our conversation. However, each of us tends to have a predominant or preferred style for communicating. This style is often apparent to us only if we think about it.  And, it may be apparent to others if they are sensitive to the queues that show our subconscious preference.  Let’s take, as an example, how we might politely express disagreement with another in a conversation. We might say, “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t look right to me,” or we might say, “ … that doesn’t sound right to me … “ or we could just as easily say “ … that doesn’t feel right.”  When you think about it, there are often three ways to convey agreement or disagreement or to ask for it.  For example, “Do you see what I am saying?” … “Do you hear what I am saying?” … “Do you feel the same way about this?”

At this level of subconscious word choice, our language is full of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (a fancy word for feeling-linked) metaphors.  We might start a conversation with something like “Picture, if you will a world where …” or we might say something like “I can hear cheering in the streets, if this happens …” or it might be a purely feeling linked statement like “There is no feeling like freedom!”  All of us use various word choices at this level and they are typically a mix of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.  But, regardless of the choices, most of us weight our choice of these subconscious metaphors to one category over the other two categories, and we find it easier to relate to metaphors in that particular category.

So, now think back to how you answered my question about your last vacation.  Did you sum up your experience using a visual metaphor, such as the “beautiful view” or something similar that relies on visual processing? Or, did you recall a sound, such as a particular song? Or was it more of an emotion or feeling-linked response, like the “feeling of closeness with my family” or something similar?  This is certainly not a conclusive test, but it may tell you something about your own preference. We’ll discuss more clues later in this post.

eyes 3I myself am a highly “visual” person.  All things being equal, I tend to use visual word choices and visual imagery when I communicate. When I prepare presentations, or someone is sharing information with me, I like my information packaged visually.  If I need to know the breakdown of the cases, or something similar, I find it easier to process that information visually through, for example, a nice, clear pie chart or some other graphic that captures all of the information.

Other people are sound-focused. They are comfortable learning about things by listening to the speaker, or hearing the particular sound that they want.  For auditory people, charts and graphs leave them feeling that something is missing.  People who are less “visual” and more “auditory” often prefer to see the information in tables or lists.  They need an added closeness to the information beyond a graphic.  Data in any form often leave the highly “kinesthetic” person cold. (Note the kinesthetic metaphor just used in that description!) What helps them process the information is the “story.”  How does this affect people? What is the impact?  Is it fair? Is it unjust?  Does a change need to happen to prevent this from happening even once?

As a former professional ski instructor, we were conscious of these different learning styles.  Often we would approach teaching the same technique using three different approaches.  So, when teaching a student to start using their edges more distinctly at an intermediate level, we might do the same exercise, but one time ask the students to make this particular shape in the snow (which required using edges), or to make your skis make “this” sound (requiring the same use of edges) or finally just asking the students to “do this” while showing them how to move their body so that they would feel the skis grip the snow, using their edges the same way.

At this point, you might ask, “Alright, this all sounds well and good, but it’s hard enough to figure out my own default preferences.  How can I possibly know another person’s?”  There are a number of clues you can watch for to confirm to yourself what your own processing style preferences may be and to help you guess what another’s processing style preferences are likely to be.  A big clue lies in a person’s eye movements during their responses.  However, the science of “occulasics,” as it called, is very complex – too complex to address in this post.  Other clues are more obvious.  Look for these clues:

Word choice what sort of metaphors does the speaker seem to prefer when making general comments?  Does he or she fairly consistently use visual terms, like “the way I see it …” or does the person choose auditory or kinesthetic references, as described above?

Speech patterns and pace – does the person speak quickly and, along with a lot of visual references, does their speaking style include a lot of vocal inflection (ups and downs)?  Are the gestures that accompany his or her dialogue, fairly large, sweeping, and mostly at eye level, as if the person were drawing a picture as they speak?  Are they quick to draw diagrams? Likely they are a visual person.

Intense ListeningDoes the person speak in a more mono-tonal style with less inflection and a somewhat slower pace?  Do they tend to use tighter, more subtle gestures that mainly occur at their chest to belt level?  Do they prefer to display information in tables or columns? Do they fairly consistently use auditory metaphors, such as “the thing that made it click for me was …” If so, they find it comfortable to work in the auditory realm of communication.

Finally, does the person speak very slowly and deliberately?  Is there conversation punctuated with frequent pauses while they appear to search for just the right word?  Are their gestures very close, sometimes almost as if they are hugging themselves, or clutching their stomach?  If so, they may prefer a more kinesthetic style of communication.

It’s very important to remember that all of us use each style, depending on the circumstances.  So, for example, if you ask a person to recall a very stressful topic, such as the death of a loved one, or how they felt after an unwelcomed sexual encounter, virtuallyhugging core everyone will respond with a kinesthetic response. So getting to know the person and their style over a window of time before jumping to conclusions is very appropriate.

Finally, why does this matter?  Let me speak to this from personal experience. At one point in my career long ago, I was responsible for managing a large employee relations function.  In this role I was responsible for reviewing case trends and making recommendations to senior management to address policy gaps or to address problem patterns in management. As a highly visual person, I made the mistake of presuming that packaging the information with graphs and supporting statistics, would convince my manager of the need for the changes I recommended.  To my dismay, I found after repeated encounters, that my reports left my manager completely cold and not motivated to make any changes.  Only when I figured out, that my manager was an extremely kinesthetic processor, did I figure out that I had to completely change my approach.  Instead of charts and graphs and statistics, I had to come in with stories that compellingly illustrated the unfairness of the behavior or the unfairness of the unintended consequences of a policy glitch.

As my career has progressed, I have worked with clients and executives who each have demonstrated a different preference in how to receive information for important decisions.  One person was even more visual than I.  Big picture charts and graphs worked well and our communications, on that level, were always easy.  Another was strongly auditory, and I found that, rather than packaging the data in graphics, if I took the same basic information to him columns and tables (in other words the data I would have used to populate my charts), he was much more comfortable.

Over my career, I have found that the time invested in pausing to figure out the most congruent way to share my thoughts and information with another in an important communication, pays great dividends in terms of building rapport and easy communication with that person.  Of course, it is not just selecting a particular processing style approach, but a much broader approach to bringing congruence to our communications.  This typically includes carefully and subtly managing my body language, my conscious metaphor choices, and my weighting of visual, auditory, or kinesthetic approaches to information sharing.  The four posts on congruence in this blog stream only skim the surface with regard to the large topic of congruence.  Congruence in communication can also involve many other things:  how we dress, our body shape, how we use space and touch, and we work with the other person’s sense of time and values.

Congruence in our relationships typically happens without thinking – it is automatic and subconscious. So, we don’t often pause to consider just what it is in this particular relationship that makes it rewarding and easy.  Perhaps our largest challenge in area is when we find that a particular relationship is just not working comfortably.  Why?   This is the time when you may have a good opportunity to stand back and look at things like framing, word choice, metaphor selection, and auditory/visual/kinesthetic communication congruence or gaps.  This is a challenging area, and I hope that these posts provide at least a starting point for those of you who may be struggling with building rapport in an important relationship.

My next post will focus on managing gaps in style and a little more on word choice as we cover the next to tips on effective communication.

© Bruce J. MacAllister, October 2013, all rights reserved.

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