The impact of metaphors in communication and understanding

By Elisabeth Goodman, 4th March 2021

I’m quite early on in my exploration of metaphors and the role they play in our everyday lives. I have more books that I’m planning to read, and events to attend. However, having just read Lakoff and Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by” (2003) I’m keen to share my insights so far!

Lakoff’s and Johnson’s book has a wealth of information, that I’ll be reflecting on for some time to come. The aspect I’d like to focus on today, since it’s so intertwined with my work as a coach, facilitator and trainer, is how metaphors impact our communication and understanding.

Why the interest in metaphors?

“metaphor is as much a part of our functioning as our sense of touch, and as precious”

Lackoff and Johnson, 2003 p. 239

Since I’ve begun learning and thinking about metaphors, I can spot them in every communication I hear, read and write. For instance, here are a few of the metaphors I’ve used in what I’ve written so far:

  • the impact of metaphors (a tool or a rock?)
  • an exploration of metaphors (a journey or scientific endeavour?)
  • the role they [metaphors] play (personification, acting?)
  • a wealth of information (resource)
  • aspect to focus on (seeing)
  • so intertwined (wool, thread or plant?!)

I may have missed a few because they are so much an integral part of how I think, write and speak.

Metaphors operate at an even more basic level than the above though, as shown in some of the examples in this illustration:

Illustration inspired by Lakoff and Johnson (2003)

What is interesting for me, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, is how these basic conceptual representations arise out of ourselves as human beings and the interactions we have with the physical nature of our environment and the people within it.

In the afterword to the 2003 edition, Lakoff and Johnson also describe how what goes on in our brains (neural theory) creates primary metaphors. So for instance the concept of “affection as warmth”, or of someone being “a cold person” are linked to our physical experience of being hugged as children.

Our brains can also use metaphors to perceive what is happening in real time, and to imagine what might be through a virtual enactment of seeing and doing something. Metaphors not only help us to conceptualise and express something that has happened, or is happening, but they can also help us to express a new idea, create a new insight, and a new perspective on a situation. Think for example of expressing love as a partnership, an adventure, or a war. Each metaphor can convey different aspects of how you and another person might think about your relationship, or could think about it to enhance or exacerbate it!

And by the way, not all cultures regard “time as a resource” or “time as money”. We have a tendency to want to be busy “doing” all the time so as not to “waste it”. If we did not regard time in this way, might we put more emphasis on just “being”?

The impact of metaphors in communication

Lakoff and Johnson’s (2003) analysis of the role that metaphors play in communication resonates very strongly with what I’ve learnt and share with RiverRhee‘s delegates on management, and communication and influencing courses:

The meaning that people derive from a communication, is based on their personal experiences, feelings and intuition.

Adapted from Lakoff and Johnson (2003)

So whilst the words (and metaphors) we use might be representative of our own experiences, feelings and intuition, we have to check that our meaning has actually “landed” in the way that we intended with the other person.

The authors suggest that part of the skill for effective communication is in adapting the metaphors that we use to be more congruent with those of whoever we are speaking too.

Different cultural norms will be one of the factors in this…

For instance, I was talking with friends in Germany recently. At one point they referred to the ceiling coming down. I had no idea what they meant until I remembered an expression we use “the walls closing in”. So yes, a sense of claustraphobia, isolation etc.. brought on by the current epidemic. [It seems like metaphors can also be idioms..i.e. common to a few people or to a culture.

So we might deliberately avoid using some of the idioms common in our language when speaking with someone of a different nationality to ourselves. But what other metaphors are we using that might come across differently to the person we are talking with?

And how do the metaphors we use influence the tone and hence the outcome of the conversation?

Lakoff and Johnson (2003) come back repeatedly to the metaphor “argument is war”. This conceptualisation particularly interests me in the context of conflict – a theme that often surfaces in our work with teams and individuals. If “argument is war” is indeed a common metaphor, then this immediately sets a negative tone to any differences of opinion. Interestingly, the word argument has a few different translations in Spanish, one of which is “discusión”. Could using a metaphor like “argument is a discussion” or “argument is a collaborative exchange of ideas” create a different tone and hence a different outcome to this kind of conversation?

The impact of metaphors for understanding ourselves and others

I’ve started reading another book on my list: “Hope in a corner of my heart” by Gina Campbell (2018). In the introduction she says:

Hidden below your conscious awareness are metaphors… that influence how you experience the world and handle what life brings. Your feelings, your thoughts, your actions, your responses to what happens each day are influenced by these metaphors. And you created them.”

Campbell (2018 p. 7)

Campbell goes on to say in her introduction that the metaphors you created, unconsciously, in the past, will have been a way to conceptualise and respond to something that happened. They will have given you strategies which were helpful at the time, and may be more or less helpful now.

Lakoff and Johnson (2003, pp. 232-233, 235) also emphasise that using and understanding our metaphors can enhance our interactions with others and our self-understanding.

So spotting and exploring the metaphors we use, and those that others use in conversation with us can enhance our self-understanding, and our understanding of others.

I’ve written a previous blog on how we could tune into and explore metaphors through using Clean Language (Goodman, 2020) – and I’ll be writing more about this as I progress through my reading.


What kind of metaphors can you spot in what you think, write and say? What metaphors are the people around you using? How do these affect your interactions and communications with others? And what insights do these bring for your self-understanding and your understanding of others?



Campbell, G. (2018). Hope in a corner of my heart. A healing journey through the dream-logical world of inner metaphors. Bloomington: Balboa Press

Goodman, E. (2020). Tuning into and exploring metaphors with clean language. Retrieved from

Lackoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through coaching, courses and workshops, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.

She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to exercise choice and realise their potential in the workplace by enhancing their leadership / management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Coaching (ACC – International Coaching Federation), Change Management, Lean Sigma, Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is also a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth recently completed her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester. She is also the founder of The Coaches’ Forum – an international community of interest for coaches to explore ideas and insights as an extension to their personal and professional development.

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