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The Power of Metaphors

By Caitlin Sweeney, Ed.S/M.S., NCC, Career Counselor at Portland State University and OCDA Member-At-Large

Many OCDA members had the opportunity to attend this year’s NCDA Career Practitioner Institute, “Practical Techniques and Strategies for Career Development Practitioners.” Themes of meaning making, purpose, and hope-centered career development emerged and infused the days’ events with a surprisingly humanistic take on our work.

In his opening keynote, “Metaphor Making,” Norman Amundson describes a world in which many suffer from a “crisis of imagination.” This crisis may express itself in our sessions with clients, with their language perpetuating a worldview that is dark and discouraged.

But, what if the simple act of noticing and naming such language could help clients see their situations differently? According to Amundson, our use of language, particularly metaphors, can have a profound effect on our perceived possibilities.

At best, a client’s use of metaphors can provide a window into their inner world and help us understand how they are conceptualizing their situation. Exploring metaphors can help us empathize with our client’s experience and, potentially, facilitate a change process that integrates more hopeful, expansive, and validating language.

Amundson invites practitioners to explore metaphors using the following framework:

  • 1.    Identifying the client’s metaphor
  • ·         Client: I’m traveling a rocky road.
  • 2.    Exploring the metaphor’s meaning
  • ·         Counselor: So, you’re traveling a rocky road. Are you alone? What does the road look like? What kind of landscape surrounds you there?
  • 3.    Extending the metaphor to understand its relationship with time
  • ·         Counselor: How long have you been traveling on this rocky road? Do other people see it the same way?
  • 4.    Reshaping the metaphor to make it more positive and health giving
  • ·         Counselor: Is there a fork in the road? We can work together and find a way to get there.
  • 5.    Applying the “change” metaphor to the client’s current situation

This same framework can be used in the context of clinical supervision, group counseling, and team building exercises. Like any counseling technique, metaphor making has its limitations. As practitioners, we must be mindful of overuse and ensure that the images evoked lie within the realm of a client’s experience.

Done right, metaphors have the capacity to build the client-counselor relationship, create memorable therapeutic experiences, and foster creative thinking. As James Dewar once said, “Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.”

The Oregon Career Development Association is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable and educational entity.

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