Feedback & Metaphors


One of the best tools anyone who wants to influence can have in their bag of tricks is the knowledge of how powerful metaphors are.  

Storytelling and metaphors go back to the beginning of recorded history. They’re how we understand the world and our language is full of them.  

When someone says “the train from Central Station today was like a can of Sardines!” we know it literally wasn’t like that. There were actually no sardines whatsoever. But we get the picture and understand their experience more deeply.  

Same thing when we are giving people feedback. Sometimes speaking to them indirectly is less threatening, or helps them understand their own situation better.  

Once I was giving a senior sales professional from New York some feedback.  
He was extremely frustrated with his results because he was working as hard as hard as he possibly could. Every day he was doing everything he knew to make the project work. He was a great team player. Nice guy, well respected.  

During his feedback session, he was obviously very frustrated and he was venting his frustrations quite loudly, which was not working in his favour with some of the other managers present.  

At this moment, telling him he was the problem was not going to help him or solve anything.  

So I decided to discuss the problem using a metaphor:  

“Jim have you ever eaten popcorn?”  

“What?” Jim said, confused at the change in direction the conversation.  

“Have you ever eaten popcorn? Sat at the movies or the football and eaten popcorn?”  

“Sure, of course” Jim said.  

“So Jim, how do you make popcorn?” (Full disclosure – everyone in the room was looking at me like I slightly mad, which people who know me well might say is warranted).  

“Well” Jim Said “you heat up some butter and drop the popcorn in and then you wait until they pop?”  

“Right! You’re popcorn Jim! You’re that popcorn that in the pan boiling in hot butter!”  

Jim laughed nervously.  

“But you will pop and you will make the sales you know you can, but right now it’s hot and uncomfortable, right?!” 

Jim laughed again “Very hot! Very uncomfortable”  

“But you will pop and make your sales, you know it, we know it. You’re popcorn!”  

Everybody in the room was smiling. The mood lifted by a silly but very powerful metaphor.  

A metaphor that spoke about us understanding his current situation and how it could change into something better in a (Pop!) moment. 

“So Mr Popcorn, here’s what we think we need to do to get your butt out of that hot butter as quickly as possible….”  

The meeting continued with suggestions of what he needed to focus on and his sales did turn around. He even emailed me “Hey! I popped!”  Metaphors are easy to remember and most importantly easy to hear.  

If he was a guy that was into sports I could have said “You’re that baseball player about to hit a home run if the coach will just give you the chance……” If it was a lady who was into gardening I could say “Jenny, we both know the seeds you plant in the spring don’t blossom overnight and we don’t expect you to either…”  

Whatever is a good match for the person will work nicely.  

Start practicing using metaphors deliberately to describe problems and solutions and see for yourself how deeply they influence people.  

Let me know how it goes or if you need help with a difficult conversation drop me a line.  

Malcolm Larri