The strongest form of behavioral metaphor is an event that is a part of real life, what might be called “living metaphor”—a compelling and unquestionably real experience that becomes a prototype for a new category. All the historical life-changing “imprint” experiences—both negative and positive—that affect people strongly are familiar examples of this. The experiences that Milton Erickson often arranged for his clients created prototypes for new understandings in the same way. A number of these were presented in my article “Creating an intense response.”

Movies and plays are stories that are dramatized and intensified behaviorally, so that they become vivid opportunities to watch others deal with important life issues, “step into their shoes,” and create understandings by identifying with the characters’ situations, feelings and responses, and learn from them.  Although drama is an example of the “as if” category, creating a “not real” situation that we can observe safely, a viewer often “loses themselves” in the drama, and may recall it later in a way that is just as intense as if it had been a real situation.

Virginia Satir, one of the greatest family therapists who ever lived, often posed family members in “tableaus” showing how they were stuck in stereotyped hierarchical interactions with each other, sometimes using ropes to show how they were tied and entangled. Then she would untie them and ask them to interact in different ways to dramatize new possibilities. Satir’s “family reconstruction” process used group members to dramatize a client’s family of origin, so that the client could empathize with the difficulties that their parents faced while growing up, and realize that the parents’ difficult or abusive behavior toward the client had little to do with the client, and a lot to do with their parents’ history, a very useful recategorization.

Ed Jacobs has developed an approach called “Impact Therapy,” using chairs, drawings, and simple props to create vivid experiences that nonverbally illustrate relationship principles and dynamics. For instance, to dramatize the role of alcohol in a couple’s relationship, he will hold a large whiskey bottle or a six-pack of beer between them, and asks them to notice how difficult it is for them to contact each other fully with this obstacle in the way.

Danie Beaulieu, a colleague of Jacobs, and author of Impact Techniques for Therapists, has a powerful method for working with someone who feels a lack of self worth because of having been abused physically. She will take a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet, hold it out in front of her, and ask the client, “How much is this worth?” The client says, “twenty dollars,” a little puzzled and intrigued by this question and its too obvious answer. Then Danie will spit on it, crumple it up, throw it on the floor, grind it under her heel, and kick it around. Then she will point to the bill, and ask the client, “Isn’t that how you feel sometimes?” an invitation to the client to fully identify with the abused bill on the floor.

Then she will pick up the bill, smooth it out gently, hold it out again, and ask, “How much is it worth now?” Of course the client says it is still worth twenty dollars. The contradiction to their belief that past abuse results in a lack of self-worth is too obvious to be mentioned. Then Danie will offer a very useful post-hypnotic suggestion or “future-pace.” Continuing to hold the twenty-dollar bill in front of the client, she says, “Whenever you see a twenty dollar bill, you can remember this.” Then each time they see a twenty-dollar bill they will be reminded that abuse is irrelevant to their self-worth.

A number of common metaphors equate life with a card game. “It’s (not) in the cards,” “It’s (not) a big deal,” “He was dealt a good (bad) hand,” “You have to play with the hand you’re dealt,” etc. When Danie wants a client to access their personal strengths and capabilities, she uses a cheap deck of cards in the following way:

“Ask your client to recall a time when he felt successful or satisfied with some aspect of his life, and to describe a personal trait he used to create that rewarding situation. If the client responds, “perseverance,” ask whether he used an ace, a king, or a queen of perseverance to succeed. Then select that card from the deck and write ‘Perseverance’ on it with a bold felt-tip pen. (Bold is important: you want to make this a statement of strength, not a tentative, penciled-in suggestion!) Continue to elicit other traits and assets that have helped your client to succeed in the past—for example, self-discipline, generosity, technical ability, humor, family support, the caring of a special friend—and repeat the process of selecting and labeling appropriate cards. This exercise, in itself, will help your client identify and recognize resources he may have forgotten he possesses.

“When you’ve accumulated at least five strong cards, present the cards to your client, one by one. Explain that he still holds this terrific hand, chock full of talents, emotional strengths, and self-knowledge, and that he simply needs to play it in the situation he now faces. Encourage him to take some time to look at his cards and take in his triumphant array of aces, kings, and queens. This in-the-moment act of “holding a strong hand” can help a client move from merely intellectually appreciating his strengths to viscerally experiencing himself as a winner. Give him the cards to take home as reminders of the inner resources that have served him well in the past—and will again.” (excerpted from Impact Techniques for Therapists)

Using cards that are powerful in a card game (not ones, twos, or threes!) accesses the client’s power in a way that words alone can’t. Putting the cards together in a “hand” strengthens each of them by association with the others, implicitly creating a category that might be described as, “I am a capable person.”

When someone is grieving over a death in the family, Danie will set up a row of paper cups, with the name of each person in the family written on one of the cups, with the dead person’s cup at the beginning of the row. At the end of this row she also places cups with the different significant areas in the client’s life written on them: work, friends, hobbies, other major activities. Then she will give the client a pitcher of water, saying, “This water represents your energy level (implicitly indicating that their energy is limited). I want you to pour water into each of these cups to show how much of your energy you are giving to each person, and each activity.”

As the client approaches the first cup representing the dead person and begins to reach out to pour water into it, Danie reaches out and silently turns that cup upside down, indicating nonverbally that the dead person can no longer receive any energy; what has been going to the dead person needs to be given to the other family members and activities. Small dramatizations like this are emotionally powerful, and they stick in the mind as vivid prototype experiences that are difficult or impossible to forget.

Danie’s book, Impact Techniques for Therapists is a wonderful resource for innovating in ways that directly affect clients nonverbally, available new or used from Amazon.

In addition there is a great DVD demonstration of Danie using three different evocative methods with three different clients, recorded at the Milton Erickson Brief Therapy Conference in 2007. I have already watched it many times, and I need to watch it many more, in order to catch the subtleties of how Danie asks questions as she uses these methods, It is available from:
Search for product ID # IC07-CD5-DVD

*This article is excerpted from Six Blind Elephants: understanding ourselves and each other, volume II: applications and explorations of scope and category, chapter 10, “Metaphor.”