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Metaphorical Thinking and Its Impact in Career Counseling

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M. H. Abrams once said, “Key metaphors help determine what and how we perceive and how we think about our perceptions.”   Metaphorical Thinking is a commons thread of everyday life – yet most of the time we don’t realize its impact or that we are even using it. Whether you are a writer, poet, scientist or career counselor metaphorical thinking can be an effective tool/strategy to better communicate an idea to your audience or client. For instance, we have all heard the phrase “time is money,” but did we know that our minds are developed in a way that allows us to better understand the meaning and purpose of this phrase. Instead of someone (say a manager speaking to his or her staff) stating that we have a lot of work that needs to be done quickly, by using the metaphorical phrase “time is money” individuals will understand the value and importance of their work and the impact it can have on the task at hand.

So what is “Metaphorical Thinking?” Metaphorical Thinking is a direct comparison between two unrelated or indirectly linked things (i.e. a bridge between the new and the familiar). It can be used to improve communications by adding greater impact or can help you explain a difficult concept through association with a more familiar one. Moreover, it can be a good way to build connections because the human mind tends to look for similarities (Making Truth: Metaphor in Science, T.L. Brown, 2003).  For instance, scientists could describe the distribution of mass in the universe as foam-like or that the earth is like a living organism, or could describe their ideas of science by using people – The theory of relativity gave birth to a whole new field of physics.
As for career counselors, we also have the opportunity to describe career development concepts using metaphors – especially new concepts or ideas such as, the relationship between dating and interviewing, personal branding (branding ourselves as if we were a product or service), or goal orientation (the world is your canvas – what kind of picture will you paint). So how do you make this work? Here are a few tips:
  • They key to instituting this methodology is to get students or clients to awaken their image-thinking part of their brain. Ever wonder why the word “Image” is the root word for “Imagination?” Instead of thinking that a picture is worth a thousand words, reverse it – a word is worth a thousand pictures.
  • Create a whole new world of perception, understanding and experience – a clearer meaning in what you are trying to communicate. Einstein once said, “I rarely think in words at all.” For instance, work with your student or client to better understand that their career is more of a journey not a destination. And that along this journey there will be obstacles or bumps in the road and that the tools and resources you are providing will serve as the map to achieving success.
  • If necessary, use physical drawings or pictures to create visualization. For example, when I am working with a student who is looking to write a personal statement I will ask them to list their hobbies (other areas of passion). Once determined I will use one of these hobbies as a theme for their statement and explain how they can relate this hobby to their field of interest (i.e. medicine). One resource I find helpful is Wikipedia to create a clear understanding on how (say scrapbooking) relates to why they are pursuing medicine). Read more about this idea at: http://wp.me/p1CG2M-O.
  • Lastly, don’t just stick with one metaphor…have alternates ready. Some metaphorical concepts may not work or be understood (especially if cultural differences exist). For example, if I were trying to describe to a student or client on how to create an introduction when networking with professionals, I may decide to use multiple metaphors such as, “elevator pitch” or “30 second commercial.”

When asked to use a metaphor to describe their careers, over 50% used the word “Journey”. Whether you are using such words as Career Path, Career Exploration, Career Ladder, Career Plateau, Progress, Climb, Destination, Map, Track, Journey, Path, Fit, Match or phrases such as putting your career on the fast track, it is like fitting a square peg into a round hole, or your interview is like going on a first date metaphorical thinking can be a fun and effective way to communicate your ideas. Remember – your goal is to create understanding so like the latest fashion trend “go out in style!”

Additional Resources:

Nevo, O. (1996). Uses of humor in career counseling. Vocational Guidance Quarterly, March, 188-196.

Bordan, T. & Goldin, E. (1999). The use of humor in counseling: The laughing cure. Journal of Counseling and Development, Fall (77), 405-410.

Metaphorical Thinking: Using comparisons to express ideas and solve problems

Unlock the Power of Metaphorical Thinking

Promoting Metaphorical Thinking Through Synectics: Developing deep thinking utilizing abstractions

Career Metaphors and Their Application to Theory and Counseling Practice

Metaphor: A new way of thinking about careers (NCDA)

ThinkBlocks Tutorial: Metaphors and Similies

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