Twelvetide 18:05 metaphor

December 29, 2018

Yesterday’s post looked at a case in which narrative techniques were used to present individual leaders with multiple challenging perspectives; seeing themselves as others see them. It described a concrete and at times brutal method of connecting people with a reality that might otherwise conveniently ignore. Today I want to look at the way in which art can help us disconnect from reality to gain perspective, to see things in a different light. Metaphor does this by referring to one thing my mentioning another. My own use of the children’s party story is a way of getting people to understand a complex (sic) set of ideas by association with something more familiar, its an allegory with a degree of hyperbole attached for good measure. It makes you think but it doesn’t challenge you personally in the same way as a parable. Reality is mediated by the words and other symbols we use, so the metaphors and in the particular the teaching stories of our childhood go a long way to understand how we shape the world and our interactions to it, and to people.

Parables connect us with ethical issues by teaching stories and their use ranges from the Aesop to the Bible with many of the classics moving into common speech. Although (to return to my Mother’s point in an earlier post) if you haven’t read your Bible, or Aesop or Homer there is a lot of english literature which is just going to pass you by. I’m still reeling from someone telling me they loved my invention of the phrase a wine glass sea and their still not getting it when I referenced rosy fingered dawn. Until recently I could always assume that a European or American audience would know about the Parable of the Good Samaritan but of recent years I’ve had to tell the story. So if you are one of the unfortunates search it out now. The reason I need it is that I’ve used (and once myself ran a variant of) the Good Samaritan Experiment to good effect. For those not familiar the experiment involved half of a seminary being asked to prepare a sermon on the Good Samaritan, half on other topics. Once complete the student was sent to another building on campus to present their sermon. But on the way they encountered an actor hired to appear to have been mugged and left to suffer. In an additional variation some were told they were running late, others that they were running early. Only 10% of those running late stopped to help, 63% of those running early did. Thinking about the Parable of Good Samaritan didn’t make a difference and some of the subjects actually stepped over the actor. Many of those who didn’t stop were worried about it when they arrived to preach and it may be that conflicting goals were more important than callousness in determining behaviour. The reference for those who want it is Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”. JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108.

A real sense of there but for the grace of God go I comes to someone who takes this lesson on board. The phrase by the way is attributed to John Bradford on seeing an evil doing taken to execution, somewhat ironic as he in turn was executed by burning. In a sense the role of the metaphor is to displace ourselves from the mundane to a different, but familiar place which allows us to see things from a different perspective. Walking in someone else’s shoes to use another popular phrase. Certainties become challenged by uncertainty in order that we can see things differently. Ionically religious parables in my experience work less well with those who strongly profess (I am using words with care here) deep religious beliefs and take easy offence; in my experience hypocrisy comes more easily to such characters. If you really have faith taking offence is hardly being humble, nor is requiring special treatment. Life needs to be uncertain at times if we are to stay alert and alive to different possibilities and perspectives.

From this we get a range of practical techniques – the use of parables to convey complex learning in organisations is fairly easy to organise (we do it with templates) and the artwork of people like Gaping Void can throw you into a different perspective very quickly. I’ve used paradox and actors following instructions (not role play which is less effective) to get people to see their actions in a different light. Simple techniques using SenseMaker® by which different groups interpret the same data independently of each other then compare and discuss the results. All of these are simple to execute, while based on sound theory and have a self-teaching effect without preaching self-awareness! Ethics is not about rule following int he complex domain, but about perspective gaining – journeys not destinations.


Banner picture – approaching the summit of Moel Hebog

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