I’m delighted to share this interview I did with Andrew Austin, developer of the technique he calls Metaphors of Movement. By helping people fully imagine the metaphors they use to describe their lives, he helps them find ways to move out of the confining structures of their own thoughts. Based in the U.K., he offers workshops all over the world.
How did you arrive at the realization that metaphorical thinking shapes our behaviors?
I’d love to say that I came to this realisation myself, but far too many people did the ground work before me. The main includes on my work in metaphors were Charles Faulkner and George Lakoff. I’ve never met Lakoff but am familiar with his work through his books and videos. I know Faulkner personally and learned the most from him passively by osmosis, he’s a very clever man.
What I set about doing was finding out how the metaphors my therapy clients used influenced and shaped their behaviour. This wasn’t easy to begin with because most metaphorical communication appears to occur outside of normal awareness. When I first started a common response was for the client to dismiss what they just said.
For example, someone might say, “I feel very trapped” and when I asked more about what they meant by trapped they would dismiss that communication with something like, “Oh nothing, it’s just a figure of speech.” I was amazed at how commonly this dismissal occurred. The client would then go onto to use many more idioms related to being “trapped” such as, “I am not going anywhere,” “I feel so stuck”, “My life is at complete standstill” and so on. Again, whenever I challenged or asked more about these idioms, then the client would dismiss them.
I saw a pattern here and so started listing all the different behavioural responses that people offered when their idioms and metaphors were questioned. With that list, I could start to see all the possible variables for responses and begin to predict certain behaviours that would occur with each of them.
In the early days, there were a lot of very frustrating sessions, for both me and my clients. Several clients left the sessions early in quite an agitated state and I would feel exhausted.
But then something strange occurred. These clients who left the sessions agitated started to contact me after the sessions. Not necessarily straight away, but the vast majority got in touch, and the was a recurring theme to what they said.
Essentially they would tell me that the session was really difficult for them and that it touched a lot of emotions and issues that they’d never normally think about and that they had been thinking about these things ever since. They weren’t happy when they left the session, but were unable to deny that they were changing in their thinking and behaviours as a result of the metaphor work.
This led me to making a poor assumption which was that there was a relationship between how upset people got in the metaphor sessions and the results that they reported back. It certainly seemed to be true, but as we know, correlation is not necessarily causation.
At this time I was receiving a lot of input and guidance from Steve and Connirae Andreas who were also exploring some of my ideas with people. They were getting excellent results as well, but weren’t upsetting people in the process. This meant I had to re-evaluate what I was doing, as clearly there was something that was happening in the emotionally charged sessions that were not happening in the otherwise normal sessions.
So this was the beginning of exploring not so much the metaphors but the behaviours that occur around the metaphors and so i started examining the behavioural variables that I was observing and testing out different responses to these.
What started out as a small and simple idea has turned into something much, much bigger resembling a forensic model of linguistics and psychopathology.
In the Consciously Projective style of dream reading that I do, we offer our insights in the first person to remain aware that are accessing our own understanding and associations. This enables the “reader” to do her or his own work on the imagined version of another person’s dream. Do practitioners of Metaphors of Movement experience those “aha” moments of self-recognition when working with other people’s metaphors?
I think it sounds a bit weird to say, “this changed my life” but the reality it has changed everything for me, both personally and how I work professionally. I get those aha moments almost daily, and hear things in how people say that I’d never heard before. It’s a phenomena that I call “shouting at the deaf” – people communicate so clearly, but it is so hard to listen to what they are actually saying. Most of the time we are making an inference on what people say or are simply hearing something else. Words can have so many simultaneous meanings at the same time, so how do we know if we are “hearing” what the speaker is actually meaning?
For example, a man goes to the doctor and says, “I’m in the black pit of despair”, the chances are a response will take the form of an evaluation, for example the doctor will ask, “Any suicidal thoughts” and so on. He will take the man’s blood pressure and pulse and do all the usual medical evaluations. The chances are high that the man will leave with a prescription for an anti-depressant and a referral to a counsellor so that he can talk about how he feels.
The metaphor the man uses is ignored and instead of listening, an inference is offered. “He says he is in a black pit of despair, that must mean he is depressed.” People are so busy getting what a person means that they don’t listen to what they say. So when the man also says things like, “he feels alone”, “very low” “very down”, “in the dark” and so on, all idioms that develop the pit of despair metaphor, these are just seen as further confirmation of the diagnosis of depression.
The information from the patient is taken out of its original context and manipulated and reframed into a new paradigm of medical metaphors. His verbal communication is manipulated to fit the needs of the medical practitioner.
Once I realised this, I was horrified at how I did the same. I took the clients’ metaphors and reshaped them to fit my own, and I hear this happen so often in normal conversations as well.
Hearing other people’s metaphor structure opens up a whole new world of possible versions of reality, and I and fellow MoMers have a lot of fun exploring these.
This led me to re-evaluating my own training in story telling (“metaphor”), hypnotherapy and NLP where such behaviours are endemic. Such reframing is a category in NLP where people are taught to do exactly this behaviour in the belief that it is helpful. For example, “You are not stuck in the pit of despair, you are just taking a rest and some time out from the world.” Awful, awful, awful.
With all this in the background, when working with people I hear strategies and behaviours and ideas that I’d never normally hear. As a result the learning opportunities for me are extraordinary. I think there are a very great many commonly recurring themes – archetypal behaviours, emotions and thoughts, things that are common to most people.
I have heard it said by different people that when working with other people you are also working with yourself, I have certainly found this to be true.
I think the main thing that occurs for MoM trainees is that they not only start to listen to other people, but they also listen to themselves. For some people this can be quite a new experience; they have spent so much time previously talking to themselves, but never actually hearing what they say!
Is recognition of the metaphor that is shaping behavior sufficient to create changes in that behavior, or is further coaching usually needed?
This is where I deviated significantly from the other major model of metaphor work, “Clean Language.” Clean Language explores and develops awareness of the metaphor to bring about a different awareness and kinaesthetic state. The main work of Metaphors of Movement is to bring about congruence between the structure of the problem and behavioural strategy by which to deal with the problem.
For example, for the man “in the pit of despair” there isn’t much value in using a strategy that say, involves hopi ear candles and medication. The man will inevitably feel better by taking the medication, but he is still in the pit, but with less despair. There is an incongruence between the problem and the solution.
Another example might be the man who is on the edge and is frightened that he will go over the edge. The way he deals with this is to listen to relaxation CD rather than take a step back and maybe change the direction he is going.
So the awareness of the metaphor is only really a tool to examine the behaviours a person has in their lives. For so many people the problematic behaviours they display are actually the attempted solution to their problems.
For example, an angry person gets angry to get people to take them seriously, a drinker drinks to relax, an anorexic starves to feel in control and so on. Often the remedies that the person adopts to try and ameliorate some of the suffering that occurs only serve to maintain the problem.
One of the things that the trainees soon realise on the workshops is how there is no “one technique” cure or intervention because the subject is so vast. The introductory training is 4 days, I’d like to make it longer, but logistical needs keeps it to 4 days.
Essentially what I want to do with both trainees and clients is to give them enough input that they can continue the explorations themselves. I give them a structure to follow and ask them to write up their explorations and send them over to me so that I can advise further if needed.
Sessions are usually around about 2 hours long and I mostly see people once or twice, with some weeks in between the sessions to allow for full exploration of the material from the first session.