Metaphors in Coaching


Iceberg as a metaphor

Metaphors are ways in which we compare one thing to another. They describe how something is like or different to something else. I feel as if am trapped underground, or I am walking on sunshine – both are highly charged metaphors. They are full of symbolic language.

Metaphors are often imaginative, dramatic or surprisingly apt. Each image will also contain and hold some associated emotions.

Metaphors capture and help to structure our experience. They are a means in which we conceptualise, associate, categorise and make sense of our world. They help us to get a handle on what is going on and make sense of things.


Metaphors often bypass the more analytic thinking mind and directly bring out that which is less consciously understood. Imagery mines a ‘different kind of knowing.’ Metaphors reach beneath the surface of our experience – often holding a deeper truth or message that may be hidden or somewhat submerged. Metaphors bring new understanding up to the surface of our lives.

Virginia Satir says of ‘metaphor’:

‘Metaphor is another kind of way to talk about human feelings.  The English words about feelings are very limited.  Again, a metaphor makes it possible to get a new sound and a new sight, a new touch, a new feel, and a new thought about something.  That is what creates change.’

From The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, Virginia Satir et al


Images or pictures often communicate and shape complex information into one idea. They bring everything together into a much simpler format than mere words do. They bring a diverse set of information, feelings or data together and produce a cohesive, meta image or perspective.

The imagery and metaphors that any client uses are, therefore, a rich source of data and provide information about their perception of the current reality or context. They often include a description of the emotional landscape that they are experiencing as they talk.

Fishbowl metaphor

Often a client will come from work to coaching and be in an analytical mode. Thinking constructively and problem-solving abilities are expected and rewarded in most business settings. The client (and the coach!) can become stuck in their heads through talking about the issue in front of them. They can keep moving round and round the same problem.

Locked in this wordy thinking pattern can be unhelpful, like a goldfish swimming round and round in the same bowl, the client has trouble discovering any new waterways. Metaphors can lift clients out of the familiar and open up new uncharted waters.

Picking up on their metaphors or asking clients what image or metaphor might sum up the situation, can often create a catalytic shift for them. They suddenly find a different way of looking at the same situation. They gain greater clarity about what they think and feel. Fresh energy arises in the coaching session. This new way of looking at things often creates a novel turn in the coaching conversation and then different outcomes emerge.


For a coach, metaphors provide an opportunity for exploration and discovery – for insight, fresh learning and new direction and sometimes also in keeping clients confused, stuck or anxious.

On the one hand, they can be powerful in that they can tap into client’s motivation and energy, moving them significantly forwards or helping them to move quickly or more cautiously and attentively.

On the other hand, metaphors can also have a negative effect. The very image can produce disillusioning or potentially unhelpful emotions for the client. The picture itself can generate anxiety or fear and create a downhill snowball of worry or negative fantasising about the future.

Snowball Metaphor


The process of skillfully working with metaphors in coaching starts with a heightened awareness of your use of metaphors as an executive coach. You may be using a variety of metaphors to describe your practice or how you coach.

You may perhaps, be using these metaphors without thinking much about them in your coaching sessions. Actively tracking when they show up can be beneficial. Your metaphors reveal your unconscious pathways and patterns, so it can be useful to understand the metaphorical habits in your language or the images that you slip into the coaching conversation without even realising it.

These metaphors will have an influence in the meeting. Conscious awareness can lead to being more ‘choice full’ and careful in how you use metaphor to support, rather than hinder your effectiveness as a coach.

Secondly, listening out for your clients’ metaphors in your coaching conversations means that you can more effectively track their frequency, energy and the emotional qualities that lie within them. It will increase your chances of spotting a possible learning or potent insight that one powerful metaphor may be holding for your client.


It is best to use the client’s metaphor rather than your own, unless you, as the coach are using it to check for clarification. Your metaphor could be helpful occasionally in nudging your client towards finding a very different or similar but slightly different meaningful, personal metaphor.

As the coach, you might say something along these lines to your client.

“As you talk, I see it like this…(describe your image). This may or may not be how you perceive the situation. What might your metaphor be?”


Metaphors can also create a sense of creativity and playfulness in coaching sessions. They can help clients take life less seriously, by finding some humour in a difficult situation.

The metaphor becomes memorable, and the learning seems to have a lasting effect. Fun, gentle amusement and some laughter usually lightens the load and replaces negative feelings with more positive emotions. The image frequently remains accessible as the client reflects upon the coaching session afterwards. It lingers on in their mind’s eye. Working with clients’ metaphors in this way can create greater resilience and a powerful, new intention to act or think differently.

Metaphors can also create a sense of creativity and playfulness in coaching sessions. They can help clients take life less seriously, by finding some humour in a difficult situation.

Source: the listening partnership (adapted)

Using metaphors for better coaching conversations

Posted on September 15, 2014 by Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth

Metaphors and analogies are the fuel and fire of thinking, according to a brilliant new book by Douglas Hofstadter. Visual Explorer and Metaphor Explorer are based in this insight. So I am pleased to have in front of me an insightful new doctoral dissertation on the use of metaphor in coaching conversations. Kristen Truman-Allen, founder of PULP Coaching, shares a summary of her dissertation (done at Fielding Graduate University) below–thanks Kristen!

“Coaches can listen for clients to use symbols, stories and objects which describe their situation and then follow those metaphors to generate news ways of thinking about their life and the situations they are working on.”

Tree Metaphor

“The awareness and use of metaphor can expand the coaching conversation in creative, imaginative ways.  Consider the words you’ve heard from clients; I carry the world on my shoulders … I’m between a rock and a hard place … I’m navigating …I can’t see … I’m spinning plates. These are examples of words clients use to describe their situation in terms of something else and are not actually their literal truth but instead are metaphors.  The client is not actually spinning plates, and they are not literally holding the world or navigating with a compass and a map. However their words hold powerful messages.  They are using language that illustrates their experience figuratively and symbolically, and when a coach listens for these cues, they can help clients make observations that are emotionally detached and objective. Drawing attention to the metaphors broadens the conversation to explore what it would be like to experience the situation differently, and often offers transformative breakthroughs in their perspective.

As a coach, leader and organization development practitioner, I was very curious about what happens in these transformative coaching conversations and did research to learn more.  My research was designed to learn about the client’s experience.  I interviewed ten people who had been coached and could recall that a metaphor was used in their coaching conversation. In this research, metaphor was any symbol, object, story or image that generated new thinking from an old experience. Using a qualitative design, I began by exploring their experience with imagery. I asked them to draw their experience of the coaching conversation and their experience of the metaphors they used. I followed with open-ended questions to deepen their exploration. All ten participants identified very individualized metaphors: magic lensesscuba shoplife is a journeytug of wartesla coilrockbreezetea boyadventure, and sponge and bricks.

Participants went through a cycle in which metaphor created a shift in awareness of their selves, their behaviors and their situations. Their perspectives, emotions, and behaviors changed. They began to change their way of being (how they lived, how relaxed they were and how they used their voice) and in some ways transformed their lives. Their metaphors became emotional, verbal and/or physical symbols and these symbolic cues reminded them of the changes that they wanted to make.

For example, one participant carried a rock with him until all his intended actions were complete. The cycle was self-generating in that the symbols then reinforced their awareness of behavior and kept their actions alive thereby generating ongoing chosen life changes. The participant with the rock continued to repurpose the rock when he had other big changes he wanted to make.

The coaching conversation allowed the metaphor to emerge and a new reality for the participants was constructed.  Coaches can use metaphors as evocative tools to help clients achieve what they wish. Coaches can listen for clients to use symbols, stories and objects which describe their situation and then follow those metaphors to generate news ways of thinking about their life and the situations they are working on. Coaches can help clients consciously see situations imaginatively to help them break through and achieve the changes they are striving for.”

Kristen Truman-Allen PhD, RN, PCC

Scroll to Top