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Metaphors and Mediation – Part One

Part Two Part Three

Language is the mediator’s tool of the trade. Thus, we open Part 1 with
a metaphor. Metaphors are an essential part of our everyday language and
we use them constantly to give physical qualities – which are understood
from daily experience – to non-physical things such as ideas.

Language is descriptive. It describes events, people, scenes, ideas.
Each of these – except ideas – have physical qualities. The event took
place physically, at a specific location with specific actors in a specific
way. In describing these events our language is clear and generally precise.
However, in describing ideas, we have a problem: ideas do not have physical
qualities. They do not have a specific location; no specific actors describe
an idea. In fact, we do not have a language of ideas.

Rather we import the descriptive language of physical things and apply
it to ideas we wish to convey. The listener, hopefully, hears our description
and translates it into a conceptual understanding.

Now you might say to me that this is a shallow idea. You know what you
mean by shallow. I will also have some general idea what you mean by shallow.
I will be hurt by your rejoinder, but I cannot apply a physical test to
determine the accuracy of it. If you tell me that a puddle is shallow,
I can put a finger into the puddle and measure it. But, I can’t physically
measure your definition of shallow idea. Instead, I insert my definition
of shallow as applied to the idea. Thus, your definition does not have
to be precise to convey your idea. As listener, I will fill in the details.
Metaphor are not explanations, “their value is more heuristic than analytical
and more useful in the context of discovery than verification”. Bernard
Weiner, Metaphors in Motivation and Attribution, American Psychologist,
Vol. 46, No. 9, 921-930. Sept. 1991.

Ideas are conveyed by substituting a physical quality for a shapeless,
invisible idea. We use metaphors to do that. Metaphors are generally described
as either dead or active. A dead metaphor is one that has been incorporated
into the everyday language and is used without thought. Your idea
is shallow
is an example of a dead metaphor. The active kind are used
thoughtfully and are a fresh way to convey an idea. Indeed, “something
new is created when a metaphor is understood,” in the sense that a metaphor
can “create similarities that previously were not known to exist”, they
“afford different ways of perceiving.” Black, M., Models and Metaphors,
Ithaca, Cornell U. Press, 1962.

The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary defines metaphor as “The figure of speech
in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object to which
it is not properly applicable.” This definition is only partly true. The
figure of speech can be transferred to ideas as well as objects. Therefore,
Webster’s New International Dictionary 2nd Ed seems a more suitable definition, “Use of a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or analogy between them.”

Even this definition suggests that an idea is on a par with an object
when, in fact, ideas are expressed with metaphors drawn from the physical
realm. Ideas are not communicated in and of themselves but through metaphors.

Recent linguistic work has changed our understanding of metaphors, particularly the work of George Lakoff and Michael Johnson. They show how metaphors are grounded in the human experience of space, time, and physical objects.(1980)  You cannot see, feel, smell or touch an idea. However, we apply our descriptions of these sensory experiences to describe ideas.

In their seminal work they define many categories of metaphors. In looking
at the word argument, they point out that argument as a container is a
commonly used metaphor. “She punched holes in my argument” is one such
metaphor – she punched might also be a fight metaphor. But if it
is used as a container metaphor she might say, “your argument just does
not hold water.” To which I could reply, “Of course it doesn’t hold water
you just punched holes in it.”

Here you can see the metaphor at work. When she punched holes in my argument, she was really pointing out its weakness and demonstrating that it lacked coherence. I knew what she meant, she knew what she meant. A visitor from space who had a translation computer listening to our conversation might
not understand the metaphor she had used to convey her ideas. For his
computer would not understand how we humans use metaphors because they
are based on descriptions of the human experience.

So, in conveying ideas we resort to metaphors which are very useful linguistic
tools. In mediation, language is almost all we have to work with. Thus,
an understanding of the metaphors we use in every day life is helpful
in increasing the positive use of them in ways that enhance the mediation
process. It is not a question of whether we use metaphors. The question
is, which ones we use.

In addition to metaphors which we use to convey ideas, everyone operates
under a series of generative (Donald L. Schoen, Generative Metaphors and
Social Policy), or what I prefer to call organizing metaphors. These determine
our view of the world. For example, some people operate under the metaphor
that life is a struggle, others, that life is a game or a competition.
These metaphors help us organize our thinking. In addition to the life
forming/guiding metaphors we also operate under organizing metaphors for
various aspects of our lives. Each major segment of our lives is given
an organizing metaphor as a means of self-explanation of how we view and
act in a situation.

We each have an organizing metaphor we use for conflict. War is the
most common metaphor for argument or conflict and people who use it as
their organizing metaphor draw from the human experience of war. If we
think that argument is war, we will use metaphors drawn from the human
experience of war.

Lawyers engage in the adversarial process and most commonly use the
conflict is war metaphor. They come to the session armed with
the facts
: the holster is transformed into a briefcase. They are ready
to shoot down your argument. Is this why participants in a legal
argument are often casualties? There are many injuries and, as with most
wars, a victor and a loser, or two losers.

An alternative metaphor is that conflict is a journey. We have a destination
(goals). We take the first steps towards an agreement. In looking
at a problem we say “Well let’s see where we go from here.”

Of course, not all journeys are smooth. We can run into heavy seas or
hit a bump in the road. O’Hanlon and Weiner-Davis advise therapists to
use the client’s metaphors. “Once, after having accomplished a great deal
of change a client said, ‘Things are much better now, but I anticipate
a rocky road in the future.’ To this we later responded, ‘While we agree
that there might be a rocky road up ahead, we are convinced that you now
have a four-wheel drive vehicle to handle it.” (“Watch Their Language”,1989,
p. 64) Here the authors repeated the client’s metaphor back to her and
added another matching metaphor which substituted a four-wheel drive auto
for her new problem solving skills.

Let us look at the broader lexicon of conflict is war metaphor which
is widely used in everyday language – perhaps in our own – and compare
it to the journey metaphor. One negotiator relates, “I marshalled my arguments, advising my colleague not to use a particular argument or they’ll blow us out of the water.” Another might say “I took all of the data to the
meeting that was needed to help us see eye to eye on the problem as the
first step towards reaching an agreement.”

The first person (A) used two war metaphors to describe how he feels
about the meeting and particularly how he feels about the other (side)
participants. The second person (B) used a closeness metaphor and a journey
metaphor indicating that he sees the other participants as people he wants
to get close to and join in a journey towards an agreement.

The vocabulary of (A) would include other war metaphors such as,

  • He attacked everything I said
  • Her criticisms were right on target
  • You disagree. OK shoot!
  • Wow, I dropped a real bombshell on them
  • Watch that guy, he goes off half cocked

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) point out that if A) is an academic (or possibly
a mediator) he would use similar but more genteel war metaphors such as:

  • In the parry and thrust of debate
  • I can’t retreat from that position
  • Let’s get our ducks in a row
  • I was caught in the cross fire between the Dean and the untenured

Whether the actual language is clearly military war or the more genteel
vocabulary, the organizing metaphor has the same effect.

The vocabulary of (B) includes such journey metaphors as:

  • Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it
  • Well, let’s see how we can climb that hurdle
  • Let’s see where we go with this one
  • I see a clearing in the woods
  • Look how far we have come
  • We’re at the cross roads
  • We’ve gotten off track
  • At this stage of the negotiations
  • There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

One of my favorites when working with clients is, “Where are we? You’ve
lost me now.” In looking for a temporary agreement I might say, “I’m wondering if we could move for just the next two months in a sense of trying to get a little space for both of you as you think about the issue.” (Haynes &
Haynes, 1989 p.75) A journey consists of space and time since it takes time
to cover the ground (space) of the journey.

Later in the same session I asked the couple if they could reach a temporary
agreement. “To get you out of the current hole that gives us some time
to look at all the issues in more detail in a leisurely way.” (p.79) This
is a more pleasurable journey, taken leisurely unlike all war metaphors
which are tense and active.

So far I have identified three groups of metaphors used in describing
an argument; container, war and journey. There are a number of other useful

  • conflict is a game: “would you like me to mediate your dispute or referee your fight?”
  • conflict is a chemical: If we can’t find an immediate solution perhaps the problem will simply dissolve away.”
  • conflict is a building: “You’re not on firm ground.” “Let’s see if we can structure an agreement.”
  • conflict is a gamble: “I’ll take my chances in court. The odds are in my favor.”

The choice of metaphor has an influence on the behavior of the participants
because it sets tone to the negotiations. In this discussion I will focus
on the war and journey metaphors. Mediation participants who invoke the
war metaphor often also believe that all is fair in love and war. There
will be a winner and a loser and the war tactics used to achieve victory
are acceptable.

On the other hand, participants who invoke the argument-is-a-journey
metaphor will take the first steps together; they will share the goal
of the journey. When they get lost they will help each other find the
way back to the common goal. They will, in fact, have to cooperate to
complete the journey.

The question we must ask is: Does the choice of metaphor determine the
behavior of the participants or does the behavior determine the metaphor?
The reason for asking this question is that if the behavior determines
the metaphor then the role of the mediator is to influence the behavior
of the client. However, if the metaphor determines the behavior, the ability
of the mediator to switch participants’ metaphors can lead to a change
in their behavior. My experience in practice suggests that people use
metaphors unconsciously. The metaphor does not necessarily reflect the
users desired behavior.

“Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or often)
by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best
exit is often a change in metaphor – not because the new guideline will
be truer to nature (for neither the old nor the new metaphor lies “out
there” in the woods,) but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives,
and metaphor is often the best agent of conceptual transition.” S.J. Gould,
Bully For Brontosaurus, London, Penguin Books, 1992, p.264

When people use a metaphor that is not consonant with their general view
of the world, the metaphor can convey a belief that the individual does
not hold. It also signals to the listener to expect a behavior that matches
the metaphor. Thus, Michael might have a belief system that is best represented
by the journey metaphor. However, he is accustomed to using a war metaphor
to describe conflict. If the others are influenced by Michael’s war metaphor
they are likely to respond, defensively, in like kind.

Thus, one task for the mediator is to help the clients use the metaphors
that most closely express their view of the conflict and/or develop an
organizing metaphor that is more conducive to cooperation and productive
negotiations. When doing this I believe that indirect messages, such as
careful use of alternative metaphors are usually more successful in creating
change than direct or confronting messages. I operate under the assumption
that my influence is best exercised through metaphors which influence
the participant’s metaphors.

Metaphors are pervasive in our lives. So far in this chapter I have over
20 metaphors that I can identify – excluding those used deliberately to
illustrate metaphors. We use them without thinking. I do not believe that
people thoughtfully select the metaphors they use. Participants to an
argument can switch their metaphors, and their behavior, if the mediator
uses her influence to assert a positive metaphor rather than a negative

The mediator is always in a position of power vis a vis the client. Clients
watch the mediator and model their behavior on her in many ways. Part
of this power derives from the reality that no matter how hard the mediator
stresses her role as a neutral, the participants try to have the mediator
make judgments. Of course, they always expect
the judgments to be in their favor and against the other participants
to the dispute.(1)  They are also aware of the mediator’s behavior and language and frequently change their own language to match the mediator’s in order to “sway” the mediator.

A second factor that increases the power of the mediator to influence
the client derives from dissonance theory (Cohen 19– and Festinger, A
theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford UP, 1957). Dissonance theory
holds that when a person argues for one idea and believes another, the
difference creates dissonance which most individuals resolve by changing
either the argument or the belief. A variation of this applies in most
group situations. When a person finds himself using a different language
or behavior in a group and the group does not adapt to his behavior, the
person will change his behavior to conform to the norms of the group.
Thus, a person using a war metaphor in a group using a journey metaphor,
is likely to change to a journey metaphor.

Even though the client may not be attempting to sway the mediator, he
will tend to change his metaphor from conflict to journey in order to
stay consonant with the mediator. This is even more likely if the mediator
and the other party use the journey metaphor.

The ideal metaphor for conflict is journey because it downplays competitive
behavior and highlights the cooperative aspect of the journey – problem
solving. I do not claim that the journey metaphor eliminates all competitiveness.

Rather I think it injects an aura of cooperation where little exists and
minimizes the aura of war. If (A) is highly competitive using all war
metaphors and the mediator maintains a journey metaphor, (A) is likely
to shift from the war framework. However, he will still want to finish
the journey ahead of the other participant, possibly by modifying the
journey to a race.

The important point here is that the mediator has shifted (A’s) thinking
and behavior from a win/lose situation in which (B) is defeated or annihilated
to a win/win with (A) finishing slightly ahead. In doing so (A) accepts
the idea of both parties crossing the finishing line. In this sense, (A)
has shifted from war to a journey and then defined the journey to be a
race or a game. In the game metaphor, unlike the war one, both contestants
have the same goal – the finishing line.

If the mediator does not think about her metaphor selection, she may
add to the competitiveness by using the war metaphor, inadvertently validating
(A’s) use of it. If (B) is the only participant operating under a journey
metaphor, he will have to change his selection to war to survive in the
negotiations. (note the origin of survive)

If (A) and (B) engage in the war metaphor and the mediator joins them,
she creates a structure in the mediation session that encourages a war
approach. The war metaphor encourages high competitiveness, casualties
and a victory for one side or, more likely, a loss for both sides.

If, however, the mediator maintains a journey metaphor then (A) is likely
to switch to maintain consonance with the mediator. If (B) is also using
‘war’ then as (A) begins to use the journey metaphor, (B) is influenced
to use ‘journey’ and both clients will move slowly towards a more cooperative
behavior. If (B) and the mediator are using ‘journey’ then the pressure
on (A) to switch and maintain consonance with the mediator and (B) is
even greater. Thus, awareness of metaphors and the conscious use of them
by the mediator is an important tool.

My analysis of tapes of actual mediation sessions shows that clients
do not use many metaphors. Their language is essentially descriptive.
They are not engaged in ideas. Rather, they are intent on telling the
mediator what the other did, when they did it and how
they did it. When the mediator is in the data collection stage, she asks
lineal, descriptive questions; when did it happen? who did
it? what was the outcome?

Later in the process as the mediator helps the participants move towards
a shared definition of the problem, she begins to share ideas. Then she
uses metaphors more frequently. Metaphors are also mostly used to explain
or describe process issues rather than content issues. Let’s
look at how metaphors work in practice.

In the transcript that follows I ask the parties, “what is the smallest
step you can take to begin to solve the problem.” I do not define what
the step should look like, there is no mention of its content. I simply
want them to take a step of their choice towards an agreement.

You will read how I focus on the journey metaphor to try to help the
participants find an agreement. I carefully avoid war metaphors which
would only reinforce their entrenched (a metaphor drawn from the World
War I wide use of trenches) positions.

Allan and Maureen are the parents of a thirteen year old daughter, Mary.
They separated ten years ago and are locked into (container metaphor)
a battle (war) with Mary as the key weapon.(war) They have been in and
out of court over the years fighting (war) over the amount of support,
when it should be paid, the amount of access and when it should be exercised.

They are deeply entrenched in their positions and have agreed to try
mediation before going back to court for the tenth time. The session has
been under way for about fifteen minutes. So far, we have identified the
key issues and I have written them up on the flip chart. The issues on
the board are:

Allan’s Issues Maureen’s Issues
Alternate weekends One Sunday each month
Easy Access Influence of grandmother
Diet Mary carrying adult messages
Take Mary out of the middle Take Mary out of the middle

We join the session as they begin to discuss the list.

Mediator:  . . . Well lets say this that at this stage of the game(2) you can only talk for yourselves. If I understand correctly you separated ten years ago and you’re still locked in(3) this.

Allan: Yeah, believe it or not its amazing isn’t it.

Mediator: In a sense it’s a curse(4) on both of you.

Allan: Well we’ve gone back and forth on so many important things.

Maureen: His mother is overbearing in this relationship; in fact I have counselors come into….

Mediator: Aside from whose problem it is, the reality is to live with this awful situation for 10 years takes a lot of courage(5) to live with it for that long. It might be time now to say you might want to get along(6) with your own lives and not be tied in,(7) particularly if you are remarried and you have another relationship.

Maureen: No, I don’t right now.

Mediator: You don’t have another relationship.

Maureen: No.

Mediator: But you want to get on with your own lives and certainly we want to take Mary out of the middle(8) of this one so lets take a look at it piece by piece(9)
and see what we’ve got, alright? We’ve got a problem now and my sense,
Maureen, is that your feeling about Sunday once a month is based on the
bottom three (of her list on the board).

Maureen: Yes.

Mediator: If those three issues got
resolved you would probably have a different position around the kind
of access if those weren’t there, ok. Then we are going to go into(10)
the diet first. Tell me a little about the diet, what are the medical
issues and for Mary.

Maureen: When I was living in California
and she was going to school her teacher made us more aware, I’ve always
been aware, that sugar has had an effect on Mary and her teacher made
us more aware and suggested that we eliminate it from her diet so we did
and it calmed her down in the class and she could carry on with her work
better. So when we came back up here I really watched what she ate and
tried to feed her as nutritionally as I could. Now, when she would go
over to the grandparents she doesn’t believe in that and Allan says they
keep her on that diet but they don’t. They have the fructose in the house,
granted, but it’s all the other things in different prepared foods that
she has problems with.

Mediator: So is she what, hyperactive?

Allan & Maureen:

Mediator: Hyperactive and in a sense
that may be related to the sugar in the diet?

Maureen: She is very sensitive to
feelings too. She picks up(11)
on, you know, the uneasiness that goes on.

Mediator: She’s stuck in the middle(12)
she’s got to be very sensitive right to read(13)
each of you individually. Lets stick for a moment to the diet though.
So the sense is that the sugar in the diet may contribute towards the
hyperactivity and if you can cut it back(14)
then the hyperactivity diminishes.

Allan: That’s according to what we’ve
heard. That’s why we bought a 50 lb bag of special sugar.

Maureen: But there’s more to it than
that Allan, there’s more to it.

Allan: There’s a lot more to it.

Maureen: Well.

Allan: A lot more to it isn’t there.

Maureen: Yes, there is, Allan.

Allan: Tell him the truth it’s real

Maureen: I’m telling the truth Allan.
I’ve Mary with me for so many years you don’t know the child and apparently,
you know, its too much trouble for you to know what’s going on.

Mediator: Allan, you’ve got something
what is it.

Allan: Like I said, the main thing
is what we want is access and these games have been played(15)
for years and like you said it would be nice to be finished up long time
ago which we were trying to do and then other games(16)
involve money and stuff. She could care less what happens to her but I
think it’s all to do with the money and the money’s been paid freely right
off the bat(17)
except for all the time she takes off.

Maureen: Well, he only wanted to
pay $1 per month maintenance for his daughter and the money has been an
issue. He has been not wanting to pay – he thinks he’s paying me.

Mediator: Okay, so then we really
do have another issue here which is the money issue.

Allan: That’s the main issue.

Mediator: Okay, let me know because
otherwise you put the wrong stuff up on the board here. You both also
agree that money is an issue.

Allan: Money has been paid freely
from day one. She wanted two hundred from the court and the court judge
said one hundred and fifty. I don’t know where the dollar came from and
we’ve been paying one hundred and fifty freely except when she leaves
the country and that goes on for months and months at a time and no access.
The grandmother, her side, they will not tell us where she is under special
instructions. They want the money and then we ask just how she is and
they don’t even talk to each other.

Maureen: They! It’s his mother. His
mother is constantly the one whose pushing everything(18)
it’s not Allan, it’s his mother.

Mediator: It’s marvelous; so you
think it’s his mother and you think it’s her mother.

Allan: No, no, her mother has nothing
to do with that when we tried to get a hold of her mother to find out
where Mary was. There was no communication on that side. So we had to
wait for the papers to come from the court orders when they get back into
town they want money. That’s how it works when they get back into town
after holidays.

Mediator: You’re both very angry at each other.

Maureen: I’m not.

Allan: This is all in the past with court orders and stuff.

Mediator: It’s marvelous how angry(19) you are with each other after ten years. You’re really angry about Maureen and you’re really angry about Allan.

Allan: I’m not angry at all, I just want access.

Maureen: I feel really sad.

Mediator: Oh come on, be honest. You’re both very angry and so
you should be if you’ve been locked into(20) this kind of nonsense for ten years.

Allan: Angry at not getting it solved. We were supposed to get it
solved years ago and part friends and look after the kids. That’s
what its all about.

Mediator: So if, if you’re both angry at not getting it resolved,
right, where could we begin,(21) what could you each do as the first step to getting it resolved,
what’s the first step that you could take towards getting it resolved.(22)

Maureen: I would say that if Allan would just be honest about the

Mediator: That’s what Allan can do. Now, what can you do? I’m
going to ask the same thing of Allan.

Maureen: I don’t know, I just don’t know what I could do to
resolve this. I have let Mary go and be a part of his family without
him being there and now it’s to the point.

Mediator: That’s what you’ve done and it hasn’t worked,(23) what can you do to make it work.

Maureen: I don’t know that’s why I’m here.

Mediator: Okay, all right.

Maureen: ‘Cause I really don’t know.

Mediator: Allan, any ideas.

Allan: Okay, she mentioned she let Mary go to my folks place
when I wasn’t there. That’s right, maybe we should explain why
Mary was there in the first place.

Mediator: That’s Maureen, now tell me about Allan.

Allan: Seems to me the grandmother here seems to be the big
problem. She wasn’t a problem at the beginning. They sort of
liked each other and Mary.

Maureen: No, when I first became pregnant with Mary his
mother’s attitude was ‘an illegitimate child in our family’. She did
not like me because I was married once before. We talked that all
out and we decided that this was our relationship together. Then as
soon as Mary came into the picture(24)

his mother acted just like ‘she’s mine’ and its still like that.

Mediator: Let me tell both of you one interesting observation.
Whenever I ask you a question about the future you reply to me
about the past and you’re very well versed in all the injuries and
hurts(25) of the past. The past is behind(26) I cannot change the past, you cannot change the past, right? You
can complain about it but you cannot change it. You can change
the future if you want to. Now I work with some couples who are
so well invested(27) in the past that they have no intentions of changing, in fact they enjoy their own unhappiness. My sense is that you don’t enjoy
your unhappiness and that you both want to go forward.(28) So let me ask you both again the question, What could you each
do to make a first step toward(29) resolving it? What could you add to the resolution(30) as distinct from back there?

Allan: Well like I said before, I could care less about the past, like
I said, even forget about it, its all paid up(31) and stuff and done like you said if we could get something done
in the future and yeah the only thing that we are interested in is
getting Mary because I think it’s important for her to see both sets
of parents and kids and so on like that and grandparents are
important too like I said, there shouldn’t be too many problems
involved here just access and you getting your money and Mary
being looked after. I mean, how many schools has she been in the
last few months?

Mediator: So neither of you then can really feel that you could
make the first move.(32)

Maureen: Well, I just feel if we were left to live our life with out
interference Mary and I would be ok. When I have had it up to
here with his mother dishing out whatever she dishes(33) to Mary and I just put my foot down,(34) Mary’s fine she tends to listen. We have a much more relaxed
relationship, there isn’t confusion in her mind as to who is trying to
bring her up. I teach her one thing she goes over and its untaught
over there.

Mediator: (35) I have a sister who’s about a year or so older than I am and when we were kids we would have to go and visit our grandparents. We
went to one grandparent and she always cooked bread pudding for
us. It was always there. The other grandparent always would look
under my sisters skirt to see if she had clean underwear and she
would always roll up my short pants to check mine. We hated
going over there but the reality was that she was my father’s
mother and that sometimes things don’t work out just the way you
want them in terms of grandparents and aunts and uncles but after
all you didn’t marry aunts and uncles. In a sense you lived together
in a sort of common law relationship, and we can’t always decide
who everybody else is with the picture.(36) We take some baggage with us(37) right? And we have to deal with that in a sense that we can’t
control all of those things and I’m wondering let me see if I can
reverse it now. What’s the smallest step that you could ask the
other to do, the smallest step that you could ask the other(38) to do to begin to solve the problem just a little thing(39) that you could ask for.

Allan: Well seeing you’re so worried about the diet and we’ve so
many pages of what she can eat.

Maureen: Well you sent them all back, Allan.

Allan: Well, we were told to read them and send them back so
we’d have it all recorded, remember.

Maureen: No I didn’t tell you to send them back I told you this.

Mediator: Well we’re back in the past again(40) it’s very.

Maureen: This was two weeks ago.

Mediator: Your both very adept(41) at that, its remarkable.

Allan: So we read what she’s supposed to eat and they do have the
food and they won’t get her that and like that and feed her what
she’s supposed to get like that or else she comes over with a cold
and we haven’t seen her for weeks.

Maureen: She’s had a cold since she knew we were coming back
to this town. That’s the effect it has on her. When she’s with me
she’s never rarely sick.

Mediator: Ok, all right, ok, I am curious, is it that when she is with
you both you both set it up(42) so that she’s under enormous tension(43)? She doesn’t create that tension, you’re the ones who can relieve
her. You’ve got a kid who is hyperactive, has those diet issues,
and you have a choice now whether you cooperate around those
issues or whether you fight about them(44). The reality from what your telling me is that so far you’ve
chosen to fight(45) about them because, in a sense, you enjoy the fighting.

Allan: No hardly, I don’t even want nothing to do with her. The
thing is, all we want to do is see Mary every other weekend and
when I’m not there or else when I am there we try to spend one day
with her and one day with the grandparents. There’s nothing else
involved. She’s eating the proper food according to the list and the
doctors and the thing about the grandmother thing, well she’s
raised us and we’re still here. She baby-sits the other kids and she’s
ok to look after (he turns to his wife who is about to interrupt) well
he’s talking to me first. Well if the grandmother is so bad and stuff
she’s ok to drop her off when they are in town on an hour’s notice
from Florida pick her up in Seattle and stuff. She’s ok to live with
her for five or six months but there’s all this resentment.

Maureen: That was a game.(46) You see his mother has said to Mary ‘whatever you want honey you make up your mind’ and Mary feels that that’s anything. In
our relationship (with the mother-in-law) she tells me all the time
what to do, what not to do.

  Mediator: There’s a problem. God gave Mary her grandparents
not you two. God gave her the grandparents whatever you may
think about that. The reality is that they’re there and you really
can’t get between(47) Mary and the grandparents. We can say that there are issues around the diet that we both share. I sense those issues although I
have a sense, Allan, that you feel that it is an instrument of control(48) that Maureen uses on you. But if you could put aside that
question and figure out how to cooperate around the diet rather
than seeing it as part of your struggle(49) seeing that it is something to do for Mary.

Maureen: That’s why she’s on it because I feel she needs to be on
something that is stable and if it is too much for him and his family
for him to keep her on that sort of diet then she needn’t go there
because it’s too unbalanced(50) for her. One day she can have his mother phoning me that she’s stealing cookies. (Maureen turns towards Allan) because you let her have them sometimes. She’s little, she can’t understand why
one day its ok and the next day I don’t want you to. My theory is
no and you stick to it and then it becomes a way of life.

Mediator: So grandmother at times is concerned about those

Maureen: Only when Mary is doing something that she doesn’t
feel is right.

Mediator: And that works very well.

Maureen: Yes.

Mediator: And that has to work well in my house but when Mary
is in someone else’s house she has a different set of rules.

Maureen: Exactly.

Mediator: Just like I used to get bread pudding at one grandmother
and my underwear looked at, at the other, different sets of rules.

Maureen: How many times did you visit, you see this is.

Mediator: One weekend we were with one grandmother and the
other weekend the other grandmother, walked three and one half
miles each way on our Sunday morning visit, and back.

Maureen: You see Mary has her own room at nana’s.

Mediator: Let me just explain that we went there and got different
treatment and we do get different treatment all through life. The
issue is you can run and control(51) your household and you do a good job but you can’t run and control Allan’s house any more than you, Allan. You run your
household and you do a good job of that but you can’t run
Maureen’s household. You can’t run each others households. All
that you can do is to say that you made a decision a number of
years ago to have a child, Mary. Out of that comes a lot of
consequences some which you control some which you don’t. The
ones which you control are how do you take a kid who already has
a difficulty dealing with hyperactivity, how do you take her out of
the middle(52) of your high anger. In a sense you see there is a parallel(53) between her hyperactivity and your hyperactivity in your
relationship. You’ve got a lot of stuff, and I don’t want to know
about it. You’ve probably each done things that you don’t feel
particularly proud about. I don’t need to know about that. What I
need to know is, you came here because you believe you don’t like
what’s going on and you want to get unstuck(54). But so far now for forty minutes I’ve asked you each what you could do to make a move(55) and I get no answer. What can the other one do to make a move and get no answers. Am I right in believing that you don’t want to make a move out of this spot?(56)

In general, the mediator uses the journey metaphor to describe the
future and solutions. By its nature, the journey is future oriented.
On the other hand the war metaphor is used to describe the past
and the problem. A future solution is more attractive to the listener
than a past problem.

I would not want to argue that the mediator should never use the
war metaphor. It is often useful for the mediator to adopt the
participants’ language to explain to them the cost of their behavior.
Thus, I might pick up the ‘war’ to point out where the battlefield is
and who is on the battlefield. The children in a divorce case, the
neighbors in a landlord-tenant dispute, customer good will in a
commercial dispute. Obviously the closer the relationship of the
people the mediator identifies as being on the battlefield the more
powerful is the metaphor.

A mediator in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shared an interesting
use of the war metaphor with me. A couple she was seeing was
locked in a custody battle over their son. The father, a pacifist,
opposed military games and toys and forbade them in his house.
The mother did not have strong feelings about the issue and
permitted toy guns and war games in her house.

The husband sought sole custody on the grounds of these
differences and came to mediation armed with photographs of the
‘war’ items he claimed were at the mother’s house. The mediator
shared an observation that he was at war with war, with the son as
the battlefield.

In this case the war metaphor was useful since it allowed the
mediator to help the father understand what he was dong. Used in
this way, the mediator’s statement successfully challenged the
incongruency of the father’s pacifism and his custody war.

In another case I used a war metaphor to help the participants
understand the movement they were taking towards an agreement.
Norman and Terri were in dispute over the residency of their
daughter and in high conflict. At one point the husband made a
proposed an idea which could have broken the logjam. I reframed
the proposal to the wife by first describing his proposal and adding,
“And you, (Norman) would be willing to give up Susan going to
school in your school system, if you could both agree to a mutually
acceptable third school system?” The phrase give up means
surrender or retreat in the war metaphor. In this case I wanted the
wife to hear that Norman was making a concession. The reframe
emphasized the concession in the context of the war metaphor.

In a divorce case parents often shift a position if they realize that
the battlefield is the family and the children are casualties of the
war. In a landlord tenant case it is less likely that a tenant will be
as strongly influenced by what other tenants think unless he is a
long term resident with plans to stay there and continue interacting
with the other tenants. In commercial disputes business people
often realize that winning the battle means losing the war and are
often willing not to win the battle in order not to lose the war and
therefore customer or supplier good will.

Some metaphors contain within them the collective wisdom of
society, summing up a complex idea in a few words. My favorite
is “It takes two to tango.” Whenever a couple are in an argument
and one is blaming the other for everything that went wrong, I
respond by simply stating, “It takes two to tango.” I have never
had a client deny the validity of that statement and, in accepting it,
accept a share of the responsibility for the predicament that brought
them to mediation. If I had tried to convince the client that s/he
was responsible for part of the problem, they could both deny it
and become angry with me. Yet, by stating an axiomatic
metaphor, the collective truism convinces the person they had
indeed played a role in the problem.

The value of it takes two to tango is that it suggests a
different perspective but dos not quantify the degree of change.
When I say it takes two to tango I imply that each has a share in
creating the dispute but I do not suggest how the share is to be
apportioned. Clients hear the metaphor and agree with the
principle while assigning their own values to it. Richards suggests
that “the vagueness which is so useful is caused by the tension
between the topic and the vehicle. The Philosophy of Rhetoric,
OUP, 1936. The listener hears the dance statement (the vehicle)
but is able to understand the topic (conflict is the product of two

Thus, one client may agree and accept responsibility for
only 5% of the problem while the other accepts responsibility for
40%. The hearer, fills in the numbers having made the shift from
blaming the other for total responsibility for the dispute to
accepting some responsibility. Once the principle has been
established, the terms of the dispute change.

Even if the client only accepts responsibility for 1% of the
dispute, this represents a shift from no responsibility and the
chance of further movement is enhanced.

A German metaphor, You both lost feathers, is a rural
metaphor about life in the farm yard, which like two to tango,
reminds the participants that both were part of the squabble. It is
useful because it takes the parties a small step from the battle
metaphor and translates it to two chickens in a squabble which they
both lose.

The value of most metaphors is that the speaker sends a
message containing a principle; the listener accepts the principle
and fills in the details from their own experience. The shift in
principle requires all three parties to understand the common
knowledge that each participant to a dispute has some role in
creating the dispute. Thus, we can also say that many metaphors
contain a collective wisdom to which we all subscribe. Only the
hearer applies the specific quantity, depth or scope of their
situation to the collective wisdom.

As Billings points out, “This process stimulates the
listener’s imagination without directly challenging an existing
point of view. On one level, the listener focuses on an unfolding
drama; on another, a conceptual shift opens the path for new
ideas.” Therapeutic Use of Metaphors, Issues in Mental Health
Nursing, 12:1-8, 1991.

Footnotes are located on a separate page if you are printing the article you may wish to print this page also.


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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