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Metaphors in coaching

Coach Steve Paul by Steve Paul
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The recently published research findings by Nationwide Building Society that 'many primary school-age children say they have never visited traditional high street shops' has interesting implications for those of us in the coaching profession. We all use metaphors because they help us quickly to communicate concepts and ideas where direct language doesn’t work. Metaphors are often stretched out into stories, and storytelling has always been a powerful way to encode and transmit a message.

As coaches, we use metaphors and stories to draw out a client’s thinking and to explore deeper meaning. Encouraging a client to tell their ‘story’ and to use metaphors where exact words may be difficult or troublesome can help a client express themselves more easily. A story can also be a great way for a coach to offer a new perspective without ‘telling’ a client.

The challenge, of course, is to be careful not to use a metaphor or a story that the client doesn’t understand – that doesn’t land with the client. (Spot the metaphor). Equally, we have to be careful that we understand what is intended with the client’s choice of metaphor. Our reference points, as coaches, may be quite different from those of our clients, particularly when working with clients from different generations.

For example, clients in their later years may have no direct experience of smartphones and so creating a metaphor about sharing in a WhatsApp group is likely to add rather than reduce confusion. In the same way, it seems that many younger children, as they grow up and become the next generation of adolescent or young adult coaching clients, will find little meaning in a high street shopping story.

The learning here for coaches is always to keep in touch with the way experiences and language that describes them are changing for our clients.

The author is an executive and life coach at

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