Fruitful Language- The Right Tools For The Job

There’s been a surprising level of interest in metaphors in recent days.  We recognise that the imagery we use to discuss Covid-19 matters to patients and their clinicians and carers. Language matters in a national crisis: it also matters in personal crises.

“This is the frontline in a war,” begins BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh’s special report filmed in University College Hospital, London. This war metaphor is pervasive in all discussion of COVID-19, in the mainstream media, on social media, in government briefings across many countries.  But there’s a long history of people with a variety of medical conditions resisting war imagery, as unhelpful.

I read an interview with Fergus Walsh this weekend talking about his use of language.  He said “When it comes to language, I agonise over every sentence I write. I have used military metaphors. I do think we are in a war against the virus; the ICUs are the frontline in that war. But I don’t think fights should be assigned to people. If someone dies, they haven’t lost a battle, they’ve been killed by a disease”

The point here is that language conveys much more than the specific meanings of the words we use.  Metaphor is a particularly powerful use of language. It can communicate and, importantly, influence our perspectives and our actions. 

That’s true at the macro level but also the micro, personal, level.  It’s common for people to describe a family dispute as a fight, to have a battle plan and to deploy weapons at our disposal.  Doing so creates a certain narrative that can shape the way we see the people and situations around us.  But we don't have to default to that kind of imagery, those metaphors: changing the record (metaphor intended) can alter the way we see ourselves and our surroundings.

When I was training as a mediator and then as a collaborative lawyer I read an article by Sharon Lowenstein that I still return to from time to time.  She writes “The influence that metaphors exert is subtle and efficient. They create or change the climate in the room. They recalibrate the tone of the discussion. They give people a sense of shared experience and understandings. The mediator who skillfully uses and mixes metaphors can more quickly create rapport and facilitate fruitful problem solving.” 

We can influence our conversations by paying attention to the images we choose to say aloud. When we replace the adversarial language of litigation with alternative metaphors we can make negotiation more constructive. This doesn’t have to be forced or awkward: we all have a wide range of metaphors in our everyday spoken language already.  Just a small shift in awareness about which images we are choosing makes a big difference.  If we leave the language of battle behind we can perhaps influence perspectives (our own and others’) by using alternative images: bridging the gap, plotting a route, sowing and harvesting. And that will bear fruit.