Metaphor Engineering is a powerful therapy that explores and shapes the client's inner experience by developing and extending the metaphors they use. When a client says "I feel like I am up against a brick wall", that wording is not an accident: that is exactly how their mind represents the problem. It is a common observation that emotional states are expressed as metaphors, for example "boiling with rage", "a weight on my shoulders ", "backed into a corner". Long term states are also rendered as metaphors. When a person says "our relationship is a roller coaster" or "I feel like I'm drifting about at sea" these are exact descriptions of how their mind communicates their inner state. It has long been known that altering the metaphor alters the state. Metaphor Engineering is a formalised approach to changing behaviour by changing the metaphor the client uses to represent their inner state.
There are many metaphor based therapies. In most of them the therapist creates a metaphor for the client to consider. In metaphor engineering the metaphors come from the client, not the therapist. In fact, the essence of the technique is to ensure the therapist does nothing but expand and elaborate the imagery spontaneously created by the client.
Suppose a client comes to a therapist and wants help with their lack of motivation. During the interview the client might say 'It just feels like I'm stuck and I can't get anywhere'. This is an example of the client using a metaphor, "stuck", to express an inner state. metaphor engineering takes it as a basic principle that what people say in metaphors reveals exactly how their subconscious mind represents their inner reality. (For those familiar with NLP, this is not the same thing as NLP's concept of Visual Auditory Kinaesthetic preferences in language).
The distinguishing feature of metaphor engineering is the use of a neutral questioning style called 'Neutral Language' in the various branded versions of the method. Neutral language is designed to be non-directive, non-judgemental and non-suggestive. For example if the client says "I feel like I'm stuck", a counseling therapist might choose to reflect that sentiment and say "You mean you feel you are not getting anywhere in your relationship and you are not able to move on?", using a sympathetic tone of voice and thereby trying to establish empathy and rapport. Suggesting the term 'move on' might force the client into a travel metaphor, when they were actually thinking about being stuck like a fly in jelly, every struggle making it worse.
Neutral Language aims to not add anything or suggest anything or lead in any way. A metaphor engineering therapist would say "And that 'stuck' is 'stuck' like what?", and would use a neutral tone of voice, aiming to be independent and disinterested. The idea is to not contaminate the client's metaphors with the therapist's preconceived ideas or suggestions. The therapist tries to get the client to develop and expand on their statements without influencing the client's mental processing in any way.
The 'stuck like what?' question is an invitation to the client to develop the metaphor. The client may say for example "Sometimes I feel like I'm swimming through treacle". The therapist might say then, "Is there anything else about 'swimming through treacle'?" and wait for the client to go on. The neutral language always aims to draw out the client but not lead them. The client might respond with "It's deep and thick and dark and my feet are heavy and stuck". The therapist might then choose to ask "How deep is that deep and thick and dark?" in order to start to guide the client to explore their metaphor landscape.
Clients typically build up a picture of their metaphor complete with boundaries, objects and other figures. The therapist might ask for example, "What is holding that treacle in place, what stops it flowing away?" and the client might say 'Oh, there's a wall round it ". And then the therapist would gently lead the client to examine the wall: "what is that wall made of?" Exactly how high is that wall?" "where does that wall end","what is on the other side of that wall?". These questions will lead the client to look objectively at the elements of their metaphor and the therapist might ask "And what would have to happen for that wall to change in some way?". This invites the client to find, invent, or create some other resources that can destroy whatever is holding them back.
This process is exceptionally effective in removing psychological blocks of many kinds.
A typical Metaphor Engineering session goes through several phases.
Sometimes the problem is dramatic, obvious and well delineated such as an eating disorder or a needle phobia. In other cases the problem only happens in specific social situations. The client is asked to define what would count as a success, and that is used as the measure of the outcome. In some cases the client is asked to specify three situations that they cannot function well in at the moment, and these are later used to test the effectiveness of the therapy.
The first stage is for the client to become aware of the problem and to learn to consider it as an object, something that has an independent existence, that exists in its own right. Obviously the client knows they have a problem, but the symptoms described may not be the actual problem, and the symptoms may actually be happening unnoticed in many different situations.
There are several ways of getting this awareness, and the way used can be varied to suit the client. The essential part of this stage is to find some way of representing the whole of the problem, the essentialness of the problem, either as a word, a phrase, a picture or a feeling, something that captures the experience of the problem. It does not matter if the representation is vague or ill defined, any representation will do as a starting point. The most common representation is as an image of some sort. This can be supplied to the client as a stereotype such as a dragon; as a common metaphoric symbol such as a wall or a rock; it can be elicited from the client naturally in the course of conversation; or by specifically asking for an image.
The next stage consists of developing one or more metaphoric representations of the problem. The therapist uses Neutral Language to get the client to elaborate on their representation, treating it as an object that has attributes and actions. The therapist questions the client to keep adding more and more detail, more and more attributes that describe the object until the client says that there are no more. The client may mention more than one object but the aim is to focus on one at a time.
The first question of this stage is usually 'And what is the purpose of [object]? This elicits an internal search for the protective function of the problem behaviour. Frequently problem behaviour is continued because the unconscious mind believes that some other behaviour will cease or will not be possible if the problem behaviour ceases. This is the definition of a 'bind', a behaviour that cannot be altered even though it is destructive because it would prevent some other behaviour. A double bind occurs when the behaviour needed to secure the desired behaviour is dependent on the destructive behaviour.
The purpose of the object will often give an insight into what the object represents metaphorically. The client may express one or more fears associated with the problem.
The next stage asks the question 'And what would you like to have happen to [object]?. This question allows the client to imagine the representation of the desired outcome state, expressed in the client's own words. What the client wants to have happen to the object becomes the first target state. Subsequent questions are directed at enabling the client to make the desired changes.
The next question is 'And what would happen if [object] is [changed] ....? This question forces the client to imagine a situation without the object present, and to imagine the consequences that would follow. The answer to this question usually provides a wording of the benefits or disadvantages the client perceives following a removal of the object. These are noted and used as targets to test that the change has been successful. At this point new binds may appear.
The next stage aims to establish whether the client can find the resources needed to create the desired outcome. The clients is asked 'And can you [change the object]?'. There are three possible answers, each of which leads to a different procedure.
If the client replies 'No', then there is a Block: the client is not able to access the resources required.
If the client replies 'Yes, if' or 'Yes, but' then the client is open to the possibility but usually specifies that additional resources will be needed; there are Pre-Requisite Conditions to be satisfied before the desired outcome can be achieved.
If the client replies 'Yes' then the client already has the resources needed to create the desired outcome.
Each of the three possible answers leads back to an earlier stage of the process. If there is a Block then the therapist will move to another object and develop that by starting the whole process afresh, asking developing questions to define the object until it is fully elaborated. The new object can be a symbolic object previously mentioned by the client or it can be created by the therapist from the client's words, for example 'What does can't-go-any-further look like?'.
If the client replies that there are Pre-Requisite Conditions then these are taken as a new object to be elaborated and the questions continue with 'And what would have to happen for [condition] to happen?'.
If the client has the resources needed then the desired outcome can be achieved and so the question 'And what happens next after [desired outcome is achieved]?' is asked and the therapist goes on to deal with whatever comes up from the new line of enquiry.
At some point the metaphoric object representing the problem will be destroyed or disappear or otherwise be resolved. When that happens the client should be free of their problem. The next stage therefore is to test whether the client is in fact free of the problem.
The questions will exhaustively test all of the Pre-Requisite conditions to ensure that the client actually does have all the resources they said they needed. Any Fears expressed by the client will also be exhaustively tested to ensure that they are resolved.
It typically happens that during this testing phase either a totally different problem emerges, or the original problem is restated in some diminished form. The emergence of the new problem or the diminished problem leads the process back to the beginning and the whole sequence is gone through again until the new desired outcome is achieved.
At some point the client will agree that they have all the resources needed, that all their fears have abated and that no further reservations are being experienced. Once that stage is reached a further set of exhaustive questions are used to ensure that the whole of the problem is gone, and that the client is sure that the problem is gone forever.
In the case of a phobia or similar single situation problem the client is asked to imagine or physically act out the desired behaviour. In the case of social problems the client is asked to go through the three scenarios they defined as their success criteria at the beginning of the session. The client is asked to visualise themselves doing the things they currently find impossible to do, and to report any problems they find. These problems are then treated as a new problem and the whole process repeats until the client does feel totally confident that they can carry out the target behaviour.