Metaphors are incredibly important for communication and understanding.

Since time immemorial, metaphors have been used as a means of teaching and changing concepts, ideas and attitudes to life.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and function
  2. Important principles of metaphors
  3. Metaphoric Solution
  4. Construction of metaphors
  5. Beware of misunderstandings in metaphors
  6. Practice for developing metaphors
  7. Symbolisms for metaphors

Introduction and function


Metaphors are incredibly important for communication and understanding. Since time immemorial, metaphors have been used as a means of teaching and changing concepts, ideas and attitudes to life. Shamans, philosophers and prophets have intuitively recognized and used the inherent power of metaphors. From Plato to Jesus, from Buddha to Don Juan to Richard Bandler, metaphors were recognized and used as powerful influencing tools.

In metaphors, people, animals or plants face certain difficulties or they find themselves in special situations. The metaphor tells us how they can solve the problem, manage the situation. So, we learn something, and maybe the metaphor impacts us and gives us an idea how we can solve our problems.

Function and use

  • The metaphor provides playing material for the unconscious. The common thread of the metaphor drives time out of the left brain, and the message goes straight into the unconscious; the left brain has no access to it.
  • The metaphor can also be applied well in coaching because it provides a stimulus to think about something in a new way. The current problem is translated into a different context and can then be viewed with more distance.
  • The metaphor can often be enormously helpful in an integration. Dead-ends dissolve in the presence of a sudden insight. This is true, even if the metaphor does nothing but translate information for the other half of the brain.
  • The participants of courses will find their content much more familiar and plausible after having told a metaphor about it.
  • Metaphors raise motivation and mood. They can be effectively used to place someone else into a certain emotional state.

Important principles of metaphors

A) Pacing and Leading

Cameron-Bandler tells the following example in which the current experience and the desired experience soon blur and thus the pacing and leading merge smoothly into each other:

"An attractive woman named Dot came for consultation. She wanted to learn to control her promiscuity, so she sought help for it. She was married to a good man (that was her description) and she had two lovely children, but she could not resist engaging in extramarital relations anytime and with whomever it was possible. She wanted to stop this behavior.

"I used the following elements in her description to build a therapeutic metaphor. Like so many attractive women, Dot was worried about keeping her slender figure (though she was by no means too fat), so I used this content area to make the metaphor look like a natural extension of our therapeutic interaction."

Problem description - therapeutic metaphors

"This promiscuity could lead her to the loss of her husband and her self-esteem. A woman on her way to obesity. Dot cannot resist the temptation that other men present her. A woman who cannot resist nutritious desserts and good food when eating out. Dot finds extramarital sex more exciting. This woman loves to eat out. Dot is dissatisfied with the sexual relationships in her marriage. This woman just pokes around in her own home-cooked food.
"Any extramarital experience produces more guilt and brings her closer to the loss of her husband. Every meal consumed outside produces more fat. Dot’s guilt gets so painful that she has to do something about it. She cannot sleep at night, etc. The fat lady has to do something about her habits. She does not fit in her clothes anymore. Dot had never developed satisfying sexual behavior with her husband. The fat lady had never learned to cook something nice for herself.

"So far, every element in the constructed metaphor is isomorphic (i.e., there is a one-to-one relationship in the structure) to the present problem. The elements reflect the present problem by their form analogous to the problem. The next step is to move from mirroring the problem to a behavioral level solution.

"The desired response that the metaphor intends is that Dot changes her behavior in a way that solves a problem. The story must therefore provide the obese woman, who is metaphorically represented by Dot - with a change in behavior.

"Dot is to use her energy to bring about stimulating and satisfying sexual experiences with her husband. She started to change the cuisine she served at home. She began to read cookbooks to find suitable dishes and began experimenting with healthy and wholesome meals.

"Dot is to find her necessary satisfaction at home. In time, faster than one might expect, she realized that there was nothing in the restaurants that matched her own domestic creations, and she no longer felt the need to cram herself anywhere else, for now she had found her satisfaction at home. Dot is proud of her marriage and her sexual relationship with her husband. Slim and lean, as this woman is now, the once fat woman is just as proud of her own culinary skills as of her firm figure." People react to such metaphors without effort. Something happens, but they often do not know exactly what.

Metaphoric Solution

B) Double induction

It is characteristic of double induction that a person is told one or more metaphors at the same time by two speakers, or that suggestions or instructions are given at the same time (or combined). One speaker uses the right ear of this person for his auditory input and the other uses the left ear for his auditory input. The goal is an overload of conscious perception to transport information directly into the unconscious. Each message is processed by the opposite half of the brain, which leads to different experiences in the two halves of the body.

C) Nested stories

When it comes to the metaphorical depiction of complex relationships or mediation steps, working with so-called "nested stories", which are also called "stacked realities" or "nested loops", is an option. In terms of structure, you use a story in which another story is embedded ... etc. Switching or changing from one story to another takes place at a time of relative tension in current story.


1. Begin Story A

2. Begin Story B

3. Begin Story C

4. End Story C

5. End Story B

6. End Story A

7. End

The conclusion of the stories thus takes place like drying washed dishes. Just as you finish the last story first, you take the last cleaned plate from the stack to dry it first.

Construction of Metaphors

  1. Identify the problem:
    What is it about? Who are the relevant persons? What role do they play?
    How does the main character act? How do the others react? etc...
    Prepare a problem description.
  2. Identify the goal:
    What would the person who has the problem want to achieve? How do other relevant people react to the behavior?
    Keep this problem solution in writing.
  3. Choose a suitable content layer:
    Look for a content layer that might reflect the problem structure, e.g. Gods in Heaven, Realm of Demons, Fairy Tales with Princes, Princesses, Wizards, Witches and Fairies, Talking Animals, Plants and Stones, Mythical Creatures and Figures from the realm of science fiction, Great Figures in history.
    Important: The content layer must be interesting to the metaphor’s audience.
  4. Mirror the problem and the goal in the content layers:
    The story must be structurally similar to the problem. The therapeutic metaphor fundamentally contains the structure of the client’s problematic situation, his relationships and the context of the problem. Then the structures and processes of achieving the goal are to be mirrored in the of history.
  5. Design a path to the goal:
    Bring in resources and build the sense that the client is capable of coping with the problem. Keep track of the goal in writing.
  6. Compose the metaphor:
    Keep a line free for each line of the story.
  7. Test the metaphor ecologically:
    Check the ecology of the goal. Does the goal fit into the context of a person’s life, without negative consequences for his personality structure and his social context? Unnecessary and dangerous insights should be excluded. Check the metaphor for inconvenient elements that can be deleted, as well as for possible interpretations and conclusions that should not be risked.
  8. Incorporate feedback instructions:
    Build in possibilities for provoking physiological signals, so that you can be recognize whether the listener is "following along".
  9. Refine the metaphor
    • Incorporate improvements
    • Use NLP Patterns for the path to the goal
    • Pacing and Leading with Representational Systems: Pacing of the main representational system, Leading into new representational systems in order to expand perception.
    • Pacing and Leading of Satir categories:
      Placating, Blaming, Computing, Distracting.

Beware of misunderstandings in metaphors

"A very competent woman who worked in a social-therapeutic housing community wanted a schizophrenic woman to spend more time in the dayroom so that she would get in contact with others and spend less time in isolation. So, she told her a story about a beautiful rose blooming in the back in a shady, damp corner of a backyard. One day the gardener noticed this rose, cut it off and put it in a vase in the entrance hall where anyone who passed by could see and admire it.
"The next day, the young woman cut her wrists to get attention (just as the gardener cut the rose)!"

You cannot always prevent someone from finding an interpretation that you did not intend; but you can at least be so careful as to make it difficult for someone to take the wrong path. Therefore, check your metaphors for unintended meanings, ambiguities, assumptions and possible interpretations. Of course, a good metaphor also lives from precisely these kinds of processes.

Phrases like "kick the bucket" have two meanings: a literal one and the meaning of someone dying. Each time you use such a phrase, both meanings are registered.

Presenting metaphors

As important as its construction is the way the metaphor is ultimately presented. An optimal rapport is extremely important. For groups, if possible, pace all three main representational systems.

  1. Present it congruently

  2. Conceal the intention (Act as if the story were about or for someone else)

  3. Trance, yes or no (as a rule, you can set an anchor better in trance)

  4. Pay attention to unconscious feedback

  5. Don’t give an interpretation

Sources of metaphors

  • Animal fables
  • Children’s fairy tales (Grimm’s fairy tales, 1001 Nights, etc.)
  • Sufi tales
  • The Bible and other religious books
  • Internet collections
  • Science fiction
  • Historical metaphors (Hannibal, Caesar, Richard the Lionheart, et al.)

Practice for developing metaphors

  1. A identifies a state he wants to change and finds a corresponding desired state that he would like to achieve instead.

  2. 2. B now questions A first about the initial state, based on the list: "If this state, this problem, this feeling .... (insert here the corresponding terms of the list) .... were present, what kind of .... (e.g., landscape) ...... would it be?"
    Find five to ten or more metaphors for this state and then follow these same steps for the desired state as well.

  3. B now creates a story using the terms discovered. He begins with the initial situation and then leads elegantly into the desired state within the story using the appropriate metaphors.

The transition from one state to the other can be done in many different ways:

  • a flying carpet
  • the main character boards an airplane
  • he/she has a dream
  • another person appears and tells a story, etc.

Worksheet for developing metaphors

If this state were a ......?



Fairy Tale












Symbolisms for metaphors

ChasmFear of falling
HarborArrival, home, security
HouseA feeling of security, a symbol for the person him/herself and their present state of mind
Insects, MaggotsSomething is rotten;
flies: something is bothering someone;
butterfly: transformation;
bees: hard work, business
JugglerDesire to do different things well and elegantly at the same time
CactusReluctance to touch/be touched
CircleCompleteness, perfect harmony
TeacherInner advisor
LilyRebirth, transformation
MagicianSomeone who has the power to transform his inner space
MagnetVulnerable, open, sensuality
NakednessUngeschützt, offen sein, Sinnlichkeit
FogSomething that lies in hiding, slow progress
OvenTo hatch an idea, to rest
OilTo ignite a fire, to smooth the waves
PackageTo let something go
Perfume sensualityLack of self-control, feeling like a victim
PuzzleLack of clarity
PyramidNew level of consciousness
RainbowPot of gold at the end of the rainbow, completion
TravelChange and growth
ShadowUnused potential, hidden "good intention"
ShipA person in his feelings
DancingLack of self-control, feeling like a victim
Tunnelconstraint, altered level of consciousness, inner path to oneself
WeatherEmotional state
MeadowBalance, connection with nature
RoomAn aspect of the self

The Truth about Metaphors

"The truth knocked on people's doors, but
nobody opened the door because she was naked.
The parable found the truth alone and freezing.
She took them home with her.
There, she told a story to the truth.
When the truth knocked on people's doors again,
they opened the doors and sat around the fire for a long time in the evening."
(author unknown)

This chapter is like visiting a nursery where you can buy different seeds. You can choose which type of seed you want to buy and which fruit or flowers should grow from it. It is up to you whether your seed will grow and bear fruit or whether it will be forgotten.


metaphor means translated "transferred pictorial expression". The term comes from the Greek, metaphorá, and means "to carry elsewhere" and "transference".


Trust is like a beautiful porcelain cup. If it falls down and breaks, it might be possible to glue it and drink from it again. But it will never again be as beautiful as it once was. With this metaphor I illustrated to my then 7 year old son how important it is to tell the truth, because otherwise the trust between me and him "changes". I told him this story when I suspected that he had not quite kept to the truth at the time.

What makes Metaphors such an effective Tool in Communicating with People?

  • You offer people what could be the truth
  • They offer approaches to solutions without overburdening
  • They show or illustrate people, things, structures and situations

Every metaphor offers meaning; it creates or deepens our understanding. It tells us a story consisting of a single word or phrase. It is able to show us the ideas of other people. But if we don't understand the nature of metaphors, they even think for us.

Many people at some point in their lives come across a metaphor that deeply moves them or that will accompany them for a long time.

This metaphor still moves me today:
"Millions of years ago, when the earth was created, creation created the duck and put it in a pond. The duck was fed and had nothing to worry about. It therefore had no responsibility. After a while, creation created the eagle. The eagle had a much more exciting life. He could reach the highest peaks of the world, he floated high in the sky and enjoyed his boundless freedom. But for this he had to find his own food and take responsibility for his own life.

Now creation created man and gave him the opportunity to choose between the boring life of a duck and the exciting life of an eagle. But then something happened. When people looked at the duck, many only wanted the benefits, but they did not want to pay the price. Now people were looking at the eagle, and again, they only wanted to enjoy the benefits that the life of an eagle brings. But they did not want to pay the price here either. So it came as it had to come. Most people simply could not decide: Duck or eagle? Creation made this a life-task for humans. Since then, two souls have been living in his chest: that of a duck, which is always chattering and never looks out over the edge of his own pond, and that of an eagle, which circles freely and majestically and enjoys freedom. Every person has both in him and knows both conditions: that of a problem seeking duck and that of the solution oriented eagle."

Metaphors can be used in almost any Context, here 5 Areas of Application:

  1. In Individual Coaching the question is often helpful: "If this state were a landscape, a plant, an animal, a fairy tale, a sound, a movement, the weather, a fruit or a sport, what would it look like?". From the answer, one can then continue to work with the metaphor.


    Client: "This state is like a bird locked in a cage."
    Coach: "What would the bird in the cage need?"
    Client: "He needs more space to develop."
    Coach: "What would give him more space to develop"?
    Client: "If he could leave the cage."
    Coach: "What prevented the bird from leaving the cage until just now?"
    Client: " ........."
  2. In the conflict resolution metaphors are very popular.


    Client: "This colleague treats me like a five-year-old little boy!"
    Coach: "Through which behaviour of the colleague would they recognise that they are treated as adults?"
    Client: " ........."
  3. In training context and in lectures metaphors ensure that content is better understood and retained. Participants often remember the stories even after years. They also provide entertainment, variety and amusement.

    A Example about priority in customer contact. In the training context, it is often desired to point out to employees that the customer is a top priority. Unfortunately, this is often underestimated both in the retail trade in customer advice and on the telephone. To illustrate this, I like to say: "In the clothing shop, I often feel that the behaviour of the saleswomen makes me realise: I AM ALWAYS INVISIBLE!"
  4. .
  5. In consultant talk, metaphors can "illustrate" situations. An Example of a manager who was often unnecessarily pressed for time: "Totally out of breath, a man runs to the landing stage, hurls his suitcase onto the ferry three metres away, jumps after it, pulls himself on board with his last ounce of strength and moans with relief: "Just made it!"

    "Not bad at all," says the sailor who watched him, "but why didn't you just wait until we docked?"
  6. In the child education metaphors are a very powerful tool. As the history of the porcelain cup shows at the beginning.

    An Example of how to encourage a child or young person to realise their potential and overcome their limits is this story: "At the University of Heidelberg, students did a flea experiment: they put fleas in a glass container that was open at the top. What happened was predictable: The fleas jumped merrily on it and out of the container. A few times the students put the fleas back into the container, and just as quickly they were free again. Now the students closed the glass container with a lid. The fleas naturally tried to escape from the container again and banged their head on the lid again and again. After a while the fleas were content to stay in the container. Even after removing the lid, the fleas surprisingly kept their low jumping height so that they never left the container. Now the students placed new fleas in the glass container with the others. The "newcomers" looked around shortly after the general jumping height and immediately adapted to it."

    In one situation metaphors are suboptimally suited, that is when there is time pressure.

    A metaphor in dealing with people whose focus is on numbers, data, facts was quickly refuted. For it is precisely these people who gratefully accept a metaphor, because it offers play material for the unconscious.

The Meaning of Metaphors - That's why Metaphors work

  • Metaphors are very important in communication and for your own understanding.
  • Shamans, philosophers, prophets and Jesus intuitively recognized the inherent power of metaphors and used them.
  • They are used to change conceptions, ideas and attitudes towards life.
  • The red thread of the metaphor drives the ratio (left hemisphere of the brain) away, so the message can reach the unconscious directly. The ratio (left hemisphere of the brain) has no access to it.

Construction Aids ofMetaphors

In order to have ideas for the construction of metaphors at hand, you will find here a small collection of topics which are often considered as the subject of a problem in practice. In a brainstorming session, suitable "transmissions" were sought. If there are difficulties with the topic learning, a metaphor with the content "school, survival, little chicks, ..." could show a possible solution.

  • learn
    School, Survival, Little chicks, Young animals, Driving, PC
  • self-confidence
    foundation, buildings, predators, rocks
  • creativity
    nature, music, theatre, drawing, colours
  • decision
    Fall of the wall, dinner, economy, profession
  • motivation
    Athletes, Mozart, Michelangelo, feelings of success
  • conflicts
    Gandhi, fairy tales, archetypes
  • time
    Seasons, clock, Einstein, growing trees, moon, children
  • Self-realisation
    Butterfly, Leonardo da Vinci, the ugly duckling, flower

Construct Metaphors in 7 Steps

  1. determine problem
    What is this problem about? Who are the relevant people involved in this problem? Who plays what role? How does the person who has the problem behave?
  2. determine destination
    What does the person with the problem want to achieve? How does he or she want to be able to behave? How does he/she feel when he/she reaches his/her goal?
  3. Select suitable content level
    Look for a content layer in which you can mirror the problem structure. Everything is possible, depending on your taste. Fairy tales, fables, science fiction, ...
  4. Mirror the problem and target in the content layer
    If a story is to solve problems, it must be structurally similar to the problem. The therapeutic metaphor basically contains the structure of the client's problematic situation, his relationship and the context of the problem.
  5. design the way to the destination
    How does the hero or heroine of the story reach his or her goal? Think about resources that the addressee of your metaphor could also use to achieve the goal.
  6. Writing the metaphor
    Let your imagination run free and pay attention to the structure.
  7. Check the ecology of the metaphor
    We call a goal ecological if it fits into the context of a person's life without entailing negative consequences for the personality structure of the person concerned and their social context.

Tips for Reciting Metaphors in a Training context

Use body language so that the listeners can see what you are saying. The difference between INSIDE and OUTSIDE moments. When you have an important action or reaction, always step INTO the story and SHOW that moment instead of describing it. Metaphors breathe life into life.

OUTSIDE: Address the audience directly. Make eye contact with the audience. Speak in a narrative voice in the past tense.

INNER: Do not address the audience directly. Do not make eye contact with the audience. You are here and now in an imagined, imagined reality. You are speaking in the present tense. Show very personal, private behaviour.

The distribution of INSIDE and OUTSIDE moments should be 20 to 80. The INSIDE moments are like spice. One should not take too much of it. Imagine the INSIDE moments as cayenne pepper. Too much is too much.

Body Language, Movement and Gestures

When you say:
"I bend down to take my bag" - bend down and take the imaginary bag.
"I stubbed my toe on the edge of my desk" - stub your toe and feel the pain.
"I went there and opened the door" - take a few steps and open the door in mime.

In any context, use your voice so that your listeners hear listening and feel what you say.
Use fast and slow speech phases.

  • Speaking shows: stress or anxiety that you are at the end of your rope, disappointment or despair, Impatience or haste, anger or rage.
  • Slow speaking shows: shock or disbelief, boredom or lethargy, fear or anxiety, controlled anger, exhaustion or tiredness, Surrender or defeat.

You will see that when you start working with metaphors, you will become an integral part of your life. People will tell you how long your story has accompanied them. It is up to you whether this seed will grow and bear fruit, or whether it will be forgotten. You decide whether it gets water and nutrients or not.

Take breaks from speaking. If you want to emphasise a word, pause for a moment immediately afterwards. Then the word has time to take effect. Play with your words until you feel comfortable with them.

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