Enter the Metaphor

My friend offered to coach my daughter in softball, so we grabbed a bucket of balls, a bat, and some gloves and went to the park.

At first, she struck out a lot. Her swing was off. I tried to give her pointers: “Keep the bat level… Swing all the way through,” but it didn’t really work.

My friend had a better idea.

“Pretend the ball is a piece of fruit, and when it comes near you, you want to slice that fruit in half.”

Smack. Smack. The hits started coming, but they were soft hits; they weren’t making it out of the infield.

“Hit ’em harder,” I cheered excitedly.

My friend took a different tack: “Imagine your sister just stole your favorite doll.”

Hazel doesn’t play with dolls, I thought to myself.

Then. Whap! Hardest hit of the day. Rolled right past me into the outfield.

Ah, yes, of course. Metaphor.

We don’t tell kids to point the tips of their skis together. We say, “Make a pizza slice.” It’s common knowledge at this point. A picture’s worth a thousand words. Kids work better with images.

Adults too.

The #1 way to change someone’s mind is not by making a good argument; it’s by sharing a metaphor.

If a friend says something like, “I feel like I’m drowning,” the best way to save them is to get in the water with them. To enter the metaphor.

“How do we get your head above water?”

But don’t stop there. Change the rules.

“The walls are closing in on me.”
“You’re forgetting that these walls are made of straw.”

“I can’t see through the forest.”
“Let’s cut down some fucking trees then.”

I’m so far down the rabbit hole.
“Maybe you’re still close to the surface, but you just don’t realize it.”

Usually, when people present metaphors, it’s not creativity that drives their vision; it’s that this is what they actually see. If you can tweak that image just a little, you can change their whole view.

Instructions can feel like lectures. “Hit it harder! Stop self-sabotaging!” You immediately create a power structure: you’re the expert, and they’re the idiot. Not a good recipe for lasting change.

Metaphors, however, are safe for everyone: a parallel universe, the land of make-believe, where the walls aren’t real, where sharp objects can rubberize in an instant, and nobody gets harmed.

The most dramatic and sustained transformations I’ve seen don’t come from brilliant advice or the lips of a sage; they materialize in a make-believe world.

You might not be able to hit a ball zinging at you at 30 miles per hour
… but you can slice an apple.

You may not feel like you can solve all of your problems at once
…but you can cut down a tree.

Enter the metaphor and make a change. Make the sea evaporate. Turn stones to jello. Knock down trees with your bare hands. You are the God of that world.

And, contrary to all the rules you learned as a kid and codified into laws as an adult, what happens in that world… happens in this one, too.