The manager as coach: tuning into and exploring metaphors with clean language

By Elisabeth Goodman, 16th December 2020

I had the opportunity to attend Judy Rees’ Metaphorum annual digital conference this year as a volunteer co-organiser. Now in it’s fifth year, and unlike many conferences that have been organised this year, Metaphorum has always operated on a digital platform. It was fascinating to see all the ground-breaking online techniques that Judy and the team were using to create as collaborative and participative an experience as possible.

More importantly though, Metaphorum is an opportunity for those practising and / or interested in Clean Language and metaphors to learn from and share ideas and experiences with each other. The approach to the conference was that people could suggest topics that they were interested in hearing about or facilitating, and then choose which of the multiple parallel and successive sessions to attend through the full thirteen hours of the event.

Being new to the conference, I asked if it might be possible to ‘go back to basics’ and have a session each on metaphors and Clean Language – and these were indeed provided by Angela Dunbar (2020a) and Doris Leibold (2020). I also attended a further session by Dunbar (2020b) on the use of objects for metaphor.

In addition, I had a really helpful exchange of learnings with fellow coach, Tim Hedin, who had attended another session on “Effortless Metaphors” by Wendy Sullivan and Paul Field (2020).

These sessions alone provided me with some great insights that will be helpful to me as a coach, and may also help managers when having coaching style conversations with members of their teams. (For those who would like to find out more on the topic, there are books on the topic for instance those referenced in my sketch-notes above, and YouTube videos including those linked to from this blog.)

Metaphors and why working with these is so valuable

Most of us use metaphors as part of our everyday speech. We might enjoy them as colourful additions to our own and others’ speech, but don’t often explore the full potential have to offer us.

When we say: “I’m in two minds about this”, or “I feel like my head is exploding”, or “It’s as though I was walking on air” – the words conjure up an image or a feeling that could be a very helpful resource.

Metaphors are a way of expressing something that could be important to us, that connects to something in our subconscious, that we haven’t necessarily fully articulated in our conscious minds.

Exploring our metaphors with a coach can help us to access the senses and emotions associated with problems, potential solutions and desired outcomes. The richness of metaphors can enable us to access our creativity, in a way that more literal linguistic descriptions might not.

Metaphors will pop up in things that we say, but we can also use things external to ourselves to create a metaphor. So for instance we might articulate a problem that we have, or a goal we would like to achieve, and then pick up a seemingly random object in the room. Or we might be out for a walk, and our attention could be grabbed by a splash of colour in a tree.

Clean language and how it can help to access metaphors

Clean language, and more specifically clean questions, enable the questioner to explore someone else’s ideas without putting any of their own content into the exploration.

For a coach, or for a manager adopting a coaching style, it means that we are truly facilitating the other person’s thinking.

A classic clean opening question, to get at an individual’s goal is: “What would you like to have happen?”

Sullivan and Field’s (2020) session at Metaphorum was a wonderful demonstration of how we can help an individual to drill down from the more abstract to the more specific, and transition their thinking from concepts in the real world, to metaphors.

The key is always to quote the individual’s actual words back to them and then ask further questions to access more specific information and attributes about (or qualities of) their concepts and metaphors:

  • “What kind of [thing] is that?”
  • “What shape or size does [that thing] have?” or “Is there anything else about [that thing]?”

We can also ask about the location of the metaphor (if this seems relevant):

  • “Where is [that thing]?” or “Whereabouts is [that thing]?”

Once the metaphor is so specific and the attributes so clear that you could almost draw it, then it may be time to ask the individual to consider how the metaphor relates to their original goal:

  • “How does this change things?”
  • “Is there a relationship between [metaphor] and your desired outcome?”
  • “What do you now know about your goal?”

I’m starting to explore metaphors now in my coaching conversations with clients, using Clean Language to support that and the effects are really powerful.

How to get started with metaphors?

Metaphors are all around us. We can start by noticing when we and others that we talk to are using them. We can spot them in articles that we read, in conversations on the radio or on the television. And we can ask others even just one question such as “what kind of [thing] is that?” and see where that leads us!



Dunbar, A. (2020a) Metaphors. Back to basics. What, how and why. Presented at Metaphorum, 2020

Dunbar, A. (2020b) Using objects. Presented at Metaphorum 2020. Retrieved from

Leibold, D. (2020) Clean language. Back to basics. Presented at Metaphorum 2020.

Sullivan, W. & Field, P. (2020). Effortless metaphor with clean Word Net – a practical tool for choosing what clean question to ask. Presented at Metaphorum 2020. Retrieved from

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 be true to themselves and exercise choice 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 Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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