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Metaphors for Persuasion

Published on 02 April 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Today, Diplo gathers to discuss “Persuasion, The Essence of Diplomacy.” I am intrigued by the conference contributions. Reading about the conference topic also inspired some new thinking on metaphors, an issue that has been my companion on the academic journey for some time now.  

To engage in a metaphorical process is to think about one thing in terms of another or to use one context to structure another. Following Lakoff and Johnson and their Metaphors we live by, I argue that metaphors are one of the key tools we use to make sense of the world. The journey metaphor I used in the first paragraph is an example of a very commonly used frame for thinking about life, relationships, as well as the fate of a political community. Metaphors can be an incredibly powerful rhetorical device because they engage reason and emotion alike. But beyond their use as figures of speech, the more interesting case, I believe, is the one where the metaphor structures how we see the world.

The points pursued here are related to Biljana Scott’s argument in her contribution to the conference. She looks at Obama’s Nobel speech and searches for framing devices; metaphors are one such framing device. Scott points out that “[m]etaphors and analogies are conspicuous frame-setting devices, as illustrated by the metaphor ‘Afghanistan is the graveyard of Nations’ and the analogy ‘The war in Afghanistan is another Vietnam’.”

Here, I want to shed more light on the powers of metaphors for persuasion. I am specifically interested in cases in which a single metaphor becomes a framing device for the relationship between the negotiating parties or the negotiation process as a whole. If found, these would be cases in which the metaphors used gain impact beyond the world of language.

Moreover, the case I am interested in exploring is a case of “soft persuasion” – to use Scott’s term. Soft persuasion describes persuasion without the application or (indirect) threat of coercive power. This kind of persuasion works solely by providing an alternative way of seeing the issue. Such cases are of specific interest because they could serve to strongly underline the power of language.

I can only make a few suggestions here. Keeping with the theme of soft persuasion, I take these examples from the world of mediation. In these cases, the mediator is a neutral party aiming at facilitating an agreement by providing a new framework for the problem and the relationship between the adversaries. A skilful mediator would be able to replace the metaphors held by the adversaries that are unhelpful to the negotiation process with a shared more useful metaphor. This can facilitate the shift to a more helpful perspective. The key idea is to propose a central metaphor to structure the relation between the conflicting parties or a certain situation in the negotiation process. Let me provide three examples to illustrate this point.

The negotiation process as a whole is a …

The way parties to a conflict speak about the negotiations might reveal a great deal about how they think about the process and how they will react. We can assume that it makes a great difference whether one thinks of the whole process as going to war, as a game, as being on a journey together, or as building a house together. A skilful mediator will be able to sense the metaphors with which the parties to the conflict approach the negotiation and will be able to introduce subtle changes in the conceptualisation of the negotiation process towards a more helpful framework.

An impasse in the negotiations as a car stuck in mud …

Ann Rose explains this specific metaphor to frame and ultimately overcome an impasse in the negotiation in the following way: “Explaining that attempts to “step on the accelerator” and “spinning the wheels,” and just getting further “stuck in the mud” illustrate the futility of escalating the conflict using old, unsuccessful approaches. In order for a “car stuck in the mud” to “move forward,” it must “get traction” through a measured and calculated process. This is done by putting the transmission in forward and reverse gears, gathering momentum in a rocking motion. The process of “grounding” to find a “centerpoint of gravity” suggests that parents might go both forward and back, to and fro, in the development of solutions to effect a mutually satisfying momentum rather than applying a singular unidirectional force to their process” (Rose 1996, 93).

The final agreement as a map and a resolution as involving secure borders …

A useful frame is the description of the final agreement in terms of a map and specifically in terms of a resolution that rests on secure border. The metaphor of the map implies specific guidelines that, if followed, lead on a common path towards a goal. Moreover, the idea of secure border signals that the map cannot be redrawn individually or arbitrarily. Thus, adding a feeling of security (Rose 1995, 95).

With these three short examples, I aim at introducing some food for thought regarding the power of metaphors in a negotiation process that goes far beyond their role as figures of speech.

Rose, Anne M. 1996. Metaphors in Child Custody Mediation: Utilizing Symbolic Language to Facilitate Agreements. In Metaphor: Implications and Applications, edited by Jeffrey S. Mio and Albert N. Katz, 85-97. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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4 replies
  1. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    Good point, Mary. I would say
    Good point, Mary. I would say that how and when the mediator introduces a new metaphor is always specific to the situation. What is more, the first step is always to get a good grasp of the metaphorical frames that the parties to the conflict are using. We need to ask: How does their world look like; is it a world where you are constantly attacked or constantly attacking; is it about gaining something or protecting something …? The metaphor the mediator should introduce needs to, obviously, provide a more helpful framework but also needs to fit with how the parties generally see the world or at least take a starting point from there. The tactic as to whether “sneak” the metaphor in or discuss it overtly will also depend on the parties. Talking about this really makes me realize how much interesting research could be done on this matter.

  2. Mary
    Mary says:

    ‘A skilful mediator would be
    ‘A skilful mediator would be able to replace the metaphors held by the adversaries that are unhelpful to the negotiation process with a shared more useful metaphor. This can facilitate the shift to a more helpful perspective.’ – I am wondering whether this would be an obvious move on the part of the mediator? Would they in effect hold up a mirror to the metaphor and point out how unhelpful it is and then suggest a new one? Or would they start to repeatedly use their own, better-serving metaphor as part of the process…

  3. Debbie Ward
    Debbie Ward says:

    Hi Katharina. Your article
    Hi Katharina. Your article intrigued me as a marketer. I decided to search metaphors for persuasion (your blog came up #3 in search engines). Despite having a background in marketing, I’ve never thought about metaphors for use in marketing–to get the attention of readers. Of course, descriptive words are always important…but I never thought of metaphors specifically. But, also I help couples negotiate separation agreements. I read that the metaphor for persuasion needs to go first to put your idea into context. Then you can go on to explain. It is then easier for the audience to grasp your point. Anyway, I’ll be thinking a lot about metaphors for persuasion as I move forward with my blog posts. But, also, I have a number of concepts that I share with my clients regarding divorce, separation, and behavior and it would be good if I can express them some how using the concept metaphors for persuasion.

    Debbie from Canada
    The Canadian Legal Resource Centre Inc.

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