Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Holistic Communication: Metaphor Restrictions

Ok, so this sounds complicated from the title but it isn’t that nasty. If you’re unfamiliar with metaphors/analogies you might want to read this short primer first it has all the answers.

It’s basically the attribution of capability or feature to something that can’t possibly have it. Like many of the techniques in this series it’s a minor thing but when you add up a lot of minor things together they can have a dramatic impact. In fact this technique on it’s own can have interesting effects as the processing of the violation (the invalid statement) is a bit like talking to someone’s subconscious, affecting the context of the original message more than the message itself…

It works by putting a “restriction” on a metaphor which doesn’t make sense (sometimes called a “metaphor violation”) which the receiver will naturally apply to the next nearest thing in context – normally the sender. Rather than discuss it academically I’m going to show you some examples and discuss their results. Bear in mind these are subtle effects, people tend to swallow the metaphor restriction at a superficial level but are impacted by the violation in a more subtle fashion.

Negative focus

“The server is a bit temperamental”

Servers aren’t temperamental, they don’t have moods. This sort of thing is often used to describe an unstable service, and everyone knows that but the violation of the metaphor means that the listener will apply the representation of temperamental to the next available thing. Maybe you or the server support team are the temperamental people.

Imagine this one in a training context (feel free to substitute “application” for “compiler”)

“The compiler is confused”

No it’s not, you are and now your delegate is too. Even rubbish applications don’t get confused, they have a logic you just don’t understand it.

“Your organisation doesn’t deal with agility at scale very well”

A particularly dangerous one as superfically it might sound like a reasonable statement to some people, I hear people say this kind of thing all the time. Organisations don’t have a mind, their behaviour is an emergent property based on the individuals in networks that do things. If you say something like this what you’re really saying is either “You don’t deal with agility at scale very well” or “I don’t deal with agility at scale very well”.  Of course if you really mean either of those then have at it. But be aware of the impact of making negative metaphor restrictions.

Positive focus

“If you pay attention do the training material you’ll pick this up really easily”

Training material doesn’t talk, the trainer does. What you’re really saying here is “Listen to me carefully and you’ll learn this”, hopefully you’d not directly say that! This is a marvelous structure as it also includes a positive embedded command 🙂

“The exercise has the answers to this problem”

Exercises don’t have answers, so who does have the answers? Clearly the trainer.

Bonus point if you can spot the positive metaphor restriction in the blurb at the beginning of this post 😉

(Unintended) False attribution

This is an interesting effect as it can be used positively but is far too easy to use deceptively. Consider in a training/mentoring situation you’ve just done a demo/example and you’re getting the class/mentee to do an exercise. You say to someone (who’s a little slower than you at something which in an imbalanced situation like training is normally everyone, if it’s not you shouldn’t be training them):

“You’re really quick at doing this stuff”

People won’t feel quick at something compared to the trainer/mentor so the restriction is on themselves. To deal with the violation they’ll apply the representation to the nearest available example which will be the trainer/mentor. You’re basically saying “Look at me! I’m awesome! I’m so quick and doing this stuff”.

That can be deliberate, certainly technical pre-sales people use this technique and I’ve seen some trainers do it but I consider it unethical. What’s interesting to me is the number of people doing this unintentionally. They think they’re praising the delegate but really they’re praising themselves when there’s a conflict between the statement and the receivers impressions.

Note that this kind of metaphor restriction only has this effect when the receiver is in conflict with the message. If they have been quicker than the other delegates then it’ll reinforce their self belief and demotivate others in the room.

Advanced Use

Although restrictions are normally applied back to the sender, it’s possible to structure layered metaphors to apply a restriction from one level (that doesn’t make sense) to another level (where it does but has then been given as an indirect message).

Let’s consider a sneaky deceptive example, in a hypothetical technical pre-sales session:

“VendorX provide services to rollout this tool, because this tool is brilliant it’ll transform the way you work by intelligently guiding you in how to change and improve, distilling knowledge and experience into practical focused advice. VendorX can be your trusted partner for improvement”

Now I’m going to separate out some bits, this breakdown is a bit simplified as I’m focusing on the metaphor restrictions there’s a few more cunning techniques in there as well:

The object: “…this tool… will transform the way you work by…”

The restriction: “intelligently guiding you in how to change and improve, distilling knowledge and experience into practical focused advice.”

Imagine a tool that could really intelligently guide you, distilling knowledge maybe, but experience? Tools don’t get experience, empirical data maybe but not experience. And focusing advice implies a rather large amount of intelligence to understand the problem and provide the correct advice in the correct context. It’s a grand claim, it might be appropriate for SkyNet but not something you’re going to buy any time soon.

So where does all that grand praise go? Wait… there’s more!

The other object: “VendorX provide services…” and a closing repetition to bring it back to mind “VendorX can be your…”

The other restriction: “…your trusted partner for improvement

As mentioned above organisations have no character only emergent behaviour based on their individuals and networks. In a salesy situation like this the salesperson represents the company VendorX so clearly the message is that the representative should be trusted (ooohhh… sneaky). If a sales person said “Hey! Trust me” *winning smile* they’d probably get sneered at this is a much more indirect way of making the same statement.

And then within that trust imperative context all of that grand praise about “guiding”, “experience”, “distilling knowledge” and “focused advice” is then applied back to the representative.

Of course all of this could backfire if the sales person hasn’t projected the relevant technical credibility which is why this is a technical pre-sales example not a general sales example.

A lot of deceptive cons, brainwashing, cults and sales techniques make use of this stuff.

The point

The point is not to use this stuff deceptively but to be aware of the impact of the things you say and write so you can improve your linguistic habits to avoid unintended side effects.

If you’ve heard sneaky sales metaphor restrictions please add them to the comments below.


This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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4 responses to “Holistic Communication: Metaphor Restrictions

  1. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors « The Mac Daddy

  3. Pingback: Direct, Indirect and complex metaphors « The Mac Daddy

  4. Anonymous May 26, 2017 at 6:10 am

    This is great. I wish I read this years ago.

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