Deepening Your Facilitation with Metaphors

Metaphor Blog2

As many of you know, I love to use metaphors in my facilitation events, workshops and social media.  Recently, I was invited as a guest facilitator to present a workshop with Jorie Wu and Jackie Chang with the CP Yen Foundation, Taiwan on the power of metaphors in facilitation. They summarized nicely the key points in their newsletter reprinted below. To read in Mandarin Chinese, please see the link in the Resource section below.


This workshop was the 3rd in a series of CP Yen Foundation Workshops held to broaden up the use of dialogue so as to facilitate positive social change. Barbara’s session was a rich co-creative community exploration as we experienced a varied of uses of metaphors in dialogue, each meeting different purposes. Metaphors make ideas more relatable and many kinds of challenges easier to grow through.

The flow of the event was bubbly chat as we arrived, Jorie’s opening context, Barbara’s context, educational piece on metaphor and a series of exercises and our group closing.

Entering ZOOM we were welcomed as people were sharing interesting stories from their lives. The Prompt: Here’s a question for everyone / anyone – what’s something interesting happening in your world?

At 10am, Jorie called us into focus giving rich context. Paraphrasing Jorie, all changes happen in dialogue so a good dialogue will enhance good collaboration and allow surprising changes to happen naturally.  How do you know you’re in dialogue? Well there are 3 noticeable dynamics: 1) Equality. All voices are heard regardless of age, rank etc. 2) Empathic Listening. This is sometimes explained as listening from inside the words as the speaker, so listening for what’s present but not necessarily spoken. 3) Assumptions are being surfaced. Some say words themselves are metaphors. At the very least we each come from different understandings, so good questions or advocacy can reveal, then clarify assumptions playing in a group. Doing that we have a better chance of actually both articulating and the hearing intended meaning. Jorie had 4 aims and we easily hit 3.
– learn from each other,
– help each other,
– be in community, and
– finish by 11:30.

Barbara’s Time
Then it was over to Barbara, letting us in on the fact “This is a brand new workshop. I’ve never done it before and I just want to have fun with you, I just want to have fun and see. It’s going to be very interactive. We’re going to explore together to see what we take from it.”

We learned she’s always been interested in image and the fact that people actually live out their language. Our thinking is almost always in metaphor. Given this, isn’t it ODD that we don’t use imagery more in consultation?

In a nutshell, dialogue is so important. It’s crucial to how we understand one other, how we solve problems together, how we really take ourselves further and forward. And people think in images all the time. They think with their senses, with feeling, touching, seeing and hearing. So, can we help ourselves in our own inner dialogue?

After her overview, a few slides helped us think about metaphor. What IS a metaphor or imagery? Some English (and Chinese) examples kicked off our thinking.
–       Our team was as quiet as mice.
–       The instructions are as clear as day or as clear as a sky.
–       You’re as slow as a turtle.
–       I’m as tired as a dog.
–       We’re pulling a cow up a tree, here.

How might we set a positive tone with your own inner dialogue prior to working with a group that you find really challenging? Together we explored this.
Sometimes our inner dialogue is saying “I don’t know if i can do this.” Or “This is too difficult.” The feeling might be heavy, like a stone dropping into the water.
So, how might we change this?  We can try changing the internal image. ICA often talks about this as “Image Shift.” We played with the images of peace and harmony with a group and shifting our focus consciously to holding that as an expectation.

The hope was that we’d go away from the session contemplating a few things.
Q: How is our life is like a metaphor right now? Barbara shared how hers, for example, is now like riding a bicycle.
Q: Can we identify metaphors of crucial importance to ourselves? This might be images, smells or sounds that just simply build up our confidence, or give us a sense of how exactly to behave in a given moment?

Breakout Exercises
Then we jumped into a series of breakout exercises.

This gave us lots of practice. Each had orientation to the task, then moved to breakout room dialogue, returning together to harvest some of what was learned onto a Google Doc (tiny link:

(1) Self Reflection on Inner Dialogue.
Metaphors are helpful for personal reflection.
PROMPT: How it is for you in your own WORK? Describe your work as it feels NOW considering the senses of image / sound / taste / smell / feeling.

(2) Designing For our Client.
Designing for an event it can be helpful to dialoguing collaboratively getting your client to describe as a metaphor what’s going on in the situation they want to change, and what outcome are they looking for?

(3) Deepening Group Dialogue.
It’s good to understand the detailed aspects of the 3 dynamics in a dialogue as metaphor.
Q: How DO you make it so a group feels …
(a)  safe and comfortable and each person feels power equal to everyone else? (Equality)
(b) like they can be spaciously and deeply heard and listened to, not judged, taught, fixed, explained to, etc.? (Empathic Listening)
(c) safe, knowing what everyone is thinking, that nothing’s lurking buried under the surface they don’t understand? (Surfacing Assumptions)

(4) Looking at the 4 Stages in a Group Discussion.
It’s helpful to think about the 4 stages of discussions and what each stage is meant to do. If we can imagine it as a sound, a taste, a sight or a feeling then we’re more likely to be accurate in terms of helping the group move through those stages of a dialogue.

At the end we each shared insights from the session and learned about things coming up next. It was an honor to spend time with everyone seeing how metaphor can trigger spirit and connection, making complexity simple and growth and learning easier.


CP Yen Foundation Website

2022 CP Yen Foundation Dialogue Newsletter  Fall issue (Chinese and English)

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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