Coaches and mentors use many tools to stimulate the learning dialogue. Among the most frequent, though we are often unaware of it, is the process of analogy.  An article by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander explains that “an apt analogy allows a person to treat something new as if it were familiar.  If one is willing to let go of the surface attributes and concentrate on shared properties, one can take advantage of past knowledge to deal with things never seen before.”

They explain that analogies are central to human cognition and that we generate them continuously every few seconds – indeed, most of our language is composed of analogies. Analogies provide a shorthand for simplifying complex thoughts – for example, “Which path shall we take?” Analogies are the basis of concepts  (“fluid mental structures that, through many successive analogies, evolve continuously”) and are therefore essential to learning.

Coaching and mentoring can be conceived of as ways to help people develop more helpful, more insightful concepts, so it’s not surprising that coaches and mentors often seek to find an apt analogy that will help a coachee or mentee grasp a new concept or set them thinking in a new direction. Given that we all want to become better coaches or mentors, is it therefore possible to become more effective in using analogy? The following guidelines may help.

  1. Seek first to help the client access their own analogies, using questions such as:
    1. What does this remind you of?
    2. What similarities do you see between this and what you have experienced before?
    3. If the client is struggling to understand their situation or their thoughts, you can explore their analogies in greater depth. If, for example, they say, “I can see light at the end of tunnel”, ask them: “What do you notice about that light?”, or “How far will you have to go to reach it?, or even more challenging, “Is the light coming towards you or are you going towards the light?”
    4. If appropriate, expand the analogy – for example, “Who else is in the tunnel with you?”
    5. If you intend to offer an analogy of your own, try first to understand why and how it works for you. Then consider how helpful it will be in opening up the client’s insight. Remember that some analogies have very different meanings in different cultures. (For example,  “put an issue on the table” can mean opposite things to an American and a European.) If you think it will be helpful in introducing a new perspective, try to avoid phrases such as “It’s like…” (even if you add “for me”, you are in danger of imposing your perspective). Do use phrases, such as “What similarities can you see with…”, which are less directive in tone.
    6. Try to become aware of the analogies you use most frequently. What can you learn about our own thinking processes and assumptions from your pattern of use of analogy? If appropriate, record a few coaching or mentoring sessions to do this analysis.

Using analogy is so fundamental to how we think and who we are, that it’s easy to take it for granted. Like many other mental processes, however, making it more conscious can make it more powerful.

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