4MAT Image Step: Using Metaphors to Create Training Impact

Many train the trainer programs encourage the use of games that serve as metaphors for the content being learned. Why and how does this work to enhance learning? For most people, metaphors are seen as a device to creatively articulate some idea. Poets, musicians and creative storytellers are often perceived to be the masters of metaphor. On the contrary, we are all quite masterful at using metaphors.

In Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson share, “…metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”1

We think in metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson illustrate brilliantly the many ways we think in terms of metaphors:

We think of time as money2:

“How did you spend your time today?’

“There was just not enough ROI on my time on that project.”

“You need to budget your time wisely.”

We think of an argument as a container3:

“That argument has holes in it.”

“Your argument won’t hold water.”

As trainers, we need to understand that a difference in metaphor will create a difference in understanding and approach. For example, many people perceive conflict as a “battle” to be won:

“I’m prepared for battle.”

“I’m going to take him down.”

“He won’t know what hit him.”

What if that metaphor were shifted? What if conflict were viewed as a creative process? as a collaboration? as a dance with each party taking turns leading? How might that shift the way we prepare for, approach and resolve conflict? A shift in the metaphor we use to understand, shifts the way we think and they way we act.

As trainers, the metaphor is a powerful tool for understanding the concepts that guide the learner’s understanding and approach. If we want to shift behavior toward a desired outcome, we must identify what metaphor will best guide the thinking and action of the learner. In the 4MAT model, the Image step creates an opportunity for the trainer to explore and, if necessary, shift the metaphors learners use to understand and approach the learning content.

Imagine that you are leading a workshop for department managers on the strategic planning process. Which of the following visual metaphors would you use to create a shared understanding of the process you are leading the group through?

Telescoping spyglass-illlustrating how the individual, team, department and division objectives must be integrated and focused on the long-range vision

Mason jar with rocks, pebbles and sand-illustrating how we must allocate space for the big initiatives (rocks), then secondary initiatives (pebbles). Otherwise, all of our resources (the space in the jar) are consumed with low impact initiatives which generate minimal return (sand).

Pie-illustrating that there is a limited budget and limited resources (pie). Each department’s allocation of budget (slice of the pie) will be determined based on the merits of plans submitted.

What metaphors have you used in training design and delivery to shift thinking?

1Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, p. 3.

2 Ibid, p. 7.

3Ibid, p 92.

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