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New Metaphor, New Mindset

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This method supports reflective practice and metaphorical/lateral thinking. It can help people approach a project flexibly and expand their ability to look at a topic from many perspectives.


Applying different or unusual metaphors to an issue or project can help people see the project through new eyes and can help generate fresh thinking and new ideas. In this simple method, people are asked to think of their project, issue, community in metaphorical terms. For example, if this team were like a dolphin, it would be aquadynamic and fast, but at the same time it would take plenty of time just to enjoy itself and to play. This process can help participants become more aware of the types of metaphors that are typically used in relation to specific issue and the mindsets that those metaphors create. At the same time it empowers them to proactively choose the metaphors and language they wish to apply and to experiment with multiple perspectives. It can also demonstrate how the metaphors we use often determine the possibilities we see.


  1. Participants are introduced to the concept of how metaphors can change perceptions and thus change the types of ideas generated. An example can be provided, such as how perspective changes if you is to think of a human being as a complex living organism or as a machine made up of a collection of parts.
  2. Focus on a specific issue or theme that the group is discussing or that is important to defining the context of the engagement. Everyone should agree on or at least understand the basic issue or theme. It could be the creation of a community garden, re-designing a post-industrial site, deciding on an organizational structure or figuring out local economic opportunities or how to restore a degraded wetland, or it could be about designing a training session or learning program. 
  3. In this step you can start with pre-prepared metaphors or ask participants to brainstorm what metaphors they might be interested in exploring. 
  4. Once you have your list, start with the first one. For example if it is “healthy forest” ask everyone to close their eyes and imagine a healthy forest. Ask people to share either in popcorn or in pairs or small groups what qualities they think of when they think of healthy forest. If you have the time you can write these on the wall or have people write them on post its. 
  5. Next, ask the question if ______(the project or theme) were like a health forest (or whatever the metaphor is), how would you describe it? What are some ways it might behave as a forest. What is most important to consider? Are there specific strengths or weaknesses? Share reflections in small groups and capture ideas on post-it notes or a flip chart.
  6. Now ask, what actions might we want to take if _____ was like a forest? List these on post-its or a flip chart. Optional: participants take time to brainstorm on their own before discussing in small groups. 
  7. Now repeat steps 4-6 for a new metaphor and for as many as you have time for. 
  8. Ask participants to reflect on the process. Notice the different outcomes and prioritized actions. Are there any metaphors that were more generative or resonant than others? Perhaps participants can come up with additional metaphors that might be interesting to explore in the future.
  9. Discuss any concrete insights or actions that came out of the exercise and highlight them to explore them later in the session, or at a later time.

Online variation

This method also works very well for online use. You can share a pre-prepared metaphorical question via a PPT presentation (accompanied by an evocative picture), and ask participants to jot down their ideas on a piece of paper. Then, participants' thoughts can be shared either in plenary or in break-out rooms.

Illustration by Réka Livits (visualive.eu)
Method developed for RECOMS (Resourceful and Resilient Communities) Creative Methods Workshop by Kelli Rose Pearson of Re-imaginary
Place on U
5 - 20 minutes
Materials Needed

Images may be helpful to stimulate ideas.

Easy to use online: Share screen and ask people to stand up, look at the image for 30 seconds, and then write brainstorm what comes to mind.

Design Thinking
Disruptive Practices
Online Engagement
Metaphorical Thinking
Surfacing Hidden Dynamics
Tip and Experiences

Example: Invite participants to imagine, for example, a traditional church or spiritual gathering place. What is essential for a spiritual gathering? E.g. A place to sing together, a place to gather and exchange news, a place to be inspired, etc… If our project was like a church, we might want to consider… 

Could ask: Are the ideas that you came up with the same as you would come up with with a more traditional questions.

Some ideas: this ______ is like a forest; this ______ is like a mountain; this ______ is like a church or a temple; this ______ is like a river; this ______ is like a house 

Variation: Participants can come up with their own metaphors

Relevant References & Resources

McCourt, W. (1997). Discussion note: Using metaphors to understand and to change organizations: A critique of Gareth Morgan's approach.

Ippolito, L. M., & Adler, N. J. (2018). Shifting metaphors, shifting mindsets: Using music to change the key of conflict.

The art of the metaphor by Jane Hirshfield

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