‘Metaphor has a paradoxical power. It distances an experience by equating it with something else, but in so doing actually brings that experience closer.’
James Geary, ‘The Secret Life of Metaphor’, Ode Magazine, Spring 2011, p. 55
Human language is alive with metaphor. Not only is our literature filled with ‘things that are likened to other things’ (a definition of metaphor), but our everyday speech is peppered with them too. And no wonder. We all know how difficult it is to describe a feeling, a memory or an experience—to penetrate to the very essence of it, and communicate that to others. And yet how satisfying it is to do so. Even if it is a difficult or even traumatic experience, being able to simply ‘name’ or ‘describe’ it exactly is somehow very healing. As Confucius said: ‘The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.’
Paradoxically, this ‘calling things by their proper name’ often involves likening them to something else—as we do in metaphor. For example, we might say that getting a firm commitment from someone about something was ‘like trying to nail a jelly to the wall’. And we get it—the slippery, slidey, wobbly nature of trying to keep something with no structure in place. It is such a powerful visual picture of an intangible experience.
Many therapeutic, conversational or storytelling tools (the ones we produce here at Innovative Resources are no exception) derive their usefulness in large part from the metaphor they are built around. One example is the circus metaphor used in Strengths In Teams
It is often said that ‘life is a circus’ and this metaphor usually points to the chaos of life. Within a team there most certainly can be chaos, especially when the team is forming and has not yet established its foundations—including purpose, role clarity, trust, respect, and ‘ground rules’ based on shared values and agreed conventions to keep everyone safe. And there can be chaos at other times too, such as when the team or organisation is facing major change, or when there is miscommunication or triangulation taking place within the team.
But looking a little deeper into the circus metaphor, a great circus, like a great team, is a well-oiled machine. There is good design and timing, clear purpose and intention, and skillful orchestration of all the moving parts. Acrobats bring perfect timing, balance, flexibility, daring and adventure, clowns bring humour, colour and light relief, and the ring master brings orchestration and overview. And we all know how important the skills of plate juggling are, not only under the big top, but also in teams as we balance all the competing priorities. (It’s also good to know when to let some of the plates clatter to the floor).
So maybe, like any well-oiled machine, a great team can be likened to a bunch of very skilled circus performers. Roll Up! Roll Up! Roll Up! (And remember to be entertained).