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Metaphor and Mediation – Part Three

Part One Part Two


When the mediator has an awareness of metaphors, their role in negotiations and the way clients use them, she can also use them productively. Sometimes one metaphor can switch a client from a negative metaphor frame. For example, in one set of negotiations, one participant said, with great agitation, “Look, don’t tell me that. If you say that then we’ll go to our attorney and you know what he’ll do. He’ll rattle my cage and that won’t be good for either company.”

This statement could be taken as a threat to the other participants not to pursue the point they had raised or it could be a promise that if the attorney “rattled my cage” he would be free to “act like an animal.” My image at the time was of a gorilla holding on to the cage bars. I thought that a similar animal metaphor might help contain the threat/promise. I responded before the other participants needed to, “You should rein in those feelings, (switching from a caged to a domesticated animal) so you don’t get thrown off track.” Here the metaphor continues a) not to get thrown off his horse and b) not to get sidetracked from his journey.

Other metaphors that I find useful include the craft one. 1. A thread weaving through the issue incorporates a piece of the past into the whole fabric but is not controlled by it. 2. A chain holding you to the past the past holds you without possibility of change except by cutting the chain. Both of these could also be considered work metaphors in that they use a task to describe a situation. Another drawn from the game metaphor is what I call the jig saw. Let’s see where we fit this one in.

In a recent family mediation case I met with the parents of a thirteen year old boy, David, who were concerned with some discipline issues. The parents are Plymouth Brethren and, among other aspects of their religion, do not approve of fiction and modern music. They had passed these values on to David who, until recently, had shared them. However, they discovered a novel in his room about a rock group and also discovered that he had been lying to them about his activities. Instead of going to the library doing his homework he had been at a friends house listening to heavy metal rock records while doing his homework. David was musically inclined and was permitted to play in the school orchestra. The parents were very concerned about these events and were at a loss to find a way to restore their value system and discipline.

I shared the following story with them. My father-in-law lived in the Northeast corner of Ohio and enjoyed telling me stories of rural life in that part of the United States. One of the stories was about the Northeast corner of Indiana where a large Mennonite population lives similar, in many ways to the Amish of Pennsylvania. They maintained their community and religious values proudly and were careful about the intrusion of the ‘outside’ world. However, they also lived, at times, in the ‘outside world’ and sometimes had to make choices. They tried to make those choices based on how best to protect the basics of their beliefs.

He told me that part of the Mennonite belief system is that a farmer should not use manufactured tools if similar man-made articles are available. On the other hand, they have fields to plough and harvests to gather. When it came time to buy a tractor for the fields the Mennonite farmer goes to the John Deere dealer and places an order for a tractor with wooden wheels – no rubber tires. The dealer points out that he does not have any wooden wheel tractors in stock but he would place an order for them and as soon as the wooden wheeled tractor arrived he would call the farmer. However, in the meantime, why didn’t the farmer take the one with tires so he could get on with his farming. Since it was only a ‘temporary’ arrangement, the farmer felt able to take the tractor with tires.

Of course, the wooden wheels never came and the temporary arrangements stretched out until the tractor wore out. But the farmer raised a good crop and was proud, each year, of his harvest.

I’m not sure whether the story is true but it has always made good telling. There were two parts of the story I wanted the couple to hear. The first was that we should all be concerned about maintaining our values while living in the wider world. The second was that the farmer was proud of his crop as they could be of David, even if they bent the rules a little.


John Haynes

Until 1978, there was no publicly available way in the United Kingdom of resolving divorce issues other than by separate legal representation. For a third person to help the divorcing partners work out, co-operatively, the consequences of their parting was revolutionary. The Finer Committee in 1973 recommended such a scheme,… MORE >

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