Metaphor your way out of a real life problem

Sometimes we bump up against problems or dilemmas that are so charged, or so painful, that we cannot break through to the other side even if we recognize there will be relief and growth. When we’re stuck like this, it can actually feel like we’ll die if we give in or let go or stop resisting (or we’ll “kill” the other person).

This doesn’t mean you are weak or incapable; it simply means you’ve got to come at the problem from another angle.

When this happens with a client, I utilize something called the Metaphor Tool.

Instead of dwelling on the actual problem (i.e. no money, lazy husband, crappy job), I ask the client to use a metaphor to describe the problem.  I’ve heard a lot of original, evocative ones, as a coach.  A Merry Go Round. A dingy hostel in the middle of a European city. A boa constrictor. Etc.

Once they have imagined what their problem is LIKE, I ask them to think about how they’d extricate themselves from their current situation (i.e. wait for merry go round to stop or simply jump off, for example. Or gather up stuff and leave dingy hostel and check in to an actual hotel, after researching hotels online).

Once the person has come up with several options for solving their metaphorical problem, I then ask them to think about how those solutions are applicable to their real life problem. It gets the brain thinking in different, creative ways (vs. banging your head against the same brick wall).  And more importantly, working with a metaphor allows some energetic separation from the dilemma to which you are so attached.  Usually, it’s a bit of fun, so that relaxes and loosens up their perspective also. I’ve had some good laughs with clients over their surprising choice of metaphor.  And because the person has gone into problem solving mode, and can easily see real solutions, there is a bit of hope around their own capabilities.

Here’s my absolute favorite example of how effective (and fun) this tool can be.  I have a client named Elisa* who absolutely hated her job at an advertising agency.  She wasn’t feeling challenged, or and gratified.  Her managers weren’t giving her the opportunity to own projects, but yet she was expected to be accountable for any mishaps or miscommunication on projects.  She was senior enough to direct strategy but instead she was in the weeds handling minutia.  Elisa was frustrated to say the least.  But the idea of finding a new job is daunting, for anyone.  What did she like to do? What was her experience? What was she good at? What would feel validating? What were her top executive functions?  What were her top character strengths?  How did all of these questions latter up to her true purpose or “brand essence”?

So instead of overwhelming her with those questions (that comes next), I took her through the metaphor tool.

When I asked her to tell me what her job situation reminded her of, I was so surprised by her response.  She answered, “I feel like I’m in the video game, Super Mario Brothers.  Like I’m stuck in the world with the castle and I have to jump over flames and face the fire breathing turtle, and all I want to do is be in the pleasant vibrant underwater fish world.”  You and me both, sister!

OMG. I loved it.  I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and spent countless hours saving the princess in this classic video game.

So I asked her how she’d get from the castle world to the fish world.

Elisa said, “I just wanna warp out of there.  I wanna go to the Warp Zone, and immediately be taken to a different level.”

She jogged a memory for me.  As as a kid, when I played this video game, and got to the screen that said “Welcome to the warp zone” I was so elated.  It meant so much. You’d made it. You had choice. There was opportunity. You felt the excitement of accomplishment and success and hard work.

Elisa simply wanted opportunity, choice, validating hard work, and ultimately a different, more relevant, work environment.

(Hell, maybe there is someone out there that prefers fire breathing turtles in a grim castle. I personally understood her desire to swim with the bright, multicolored fish!)

What she and I both knew was – you can’t get to the Warp Zone without taking various steps (avoid fireballs, jump on mushrooms, collect coins & 1UPs, etc.) and sometimes failing (dying!) and having to start all over again in level 1-1.

So Elisa and I developed a plan of smaller steps (i.e list of networking contacts. Schedule informational coffees with 3 network contacts a month, update resume template, etc.) to get her to the moment where she could warp out of that ad agency.

And I’m so proud to say, Elisa is now in a new gratifying role, in a new kickass company, swimming with the fishes.

*although this client gave me permission to share her story, I’ve changed her name for privacy

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