Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Metaphors we argue by

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In our professional lives we often come across people who have opinions  that differ from ours. If our views matter to us, we may attempt to influence such people by presenting reasons why we think our positions are better than theirs.  In response they will do the same, and so we have an argument: a debate or a discussion involving differing points of view.  The point of disagreement could be just about anything –a design, a business decision or even a company dinner menu.  In this post I  explore the idea that the dictionary meanings of the word “argument” do  not tell the whole story about what an argument actually is. In their classic work on conceptual metaphors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show how metaphors  influence the way we view and understand human experiences (such as arguments).  Below, I look at a few metaphors for argument and discuss how they influence our attitudes  to the act of arguing.

Argument as war

In the very first chapter of their book, Lakoff and Johnson use the metaphor argument is war to illustrate how arguments are often viewed, practiced and experienced. Consider the following statements:

  1. He attacked my idea.
  2. I defended my position.
  3. He countered my argument.
  4. I won the argument.

These statements – and others similar to them – are often used to describe the experience of arguing. They highlight the essentially adversarial nature of debate in our society. Lakoff and Johnson suggest that this metaphor colours the way we think about and approach arguments. This makes sense – just think about the negative emotions and confrontational attitudes that people bring to meetings in which contentious matters are discussed.

However,  it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the following metaphor…

Argument as art

In a  post on collaborative knowledge creation, I discussed how a specific kind of argument – design discussion – can be seen as a act of collaborative knowledge creation. Al Selvin uses the term knowledge art to refer to this form of argument.  As he sees it, knowledge art is a marriage of the two forms of discourse that make up the term. On the one hand, we have knowledge which, “… in an organizational setting, can be thought of as what is needed to perform work; the tacit and explicit concepts, relationships, and rules that allow us to know how to do what we do.” On the other, we have art which “… is concerned with heightened expression, metaphor, crafting, emotion, nuance, creativity, meaning, purpose, beauty, rhythm, timbre, tone, immediacy, and connection.”

Design discussions can be no less contentious than other arguments – in fact often they are even more so.   Nevertheless, if participants view the process as one of creation, then their emphasis is on working together to craft an aesthetically pleasing and functional design. They would then be less concerned about being right (or proving the other wrong) than about contributing what they know to make the design better. Of course, the right environment has to be in place for people to be able to work together (and that is another story in itself!), but the important point here is that there are non-adversarial metaphors for arguments, which can lead to productive rather than point-scoring debates.

Note that this metaphor does not just apply to design discussions.  Consider the following statements, which could be used in the context of any kind of argument:

  1. His words were well crafted.
  2. His ideas gave us a new perspective.
  3. He expressed his views clearly.

Among other things these statements emphasise that arguments can be conducted in a respectful and non-confrontational manner.

Argument as cooperation

One of the features of productive arguments is the way in which participants work together to make contributions that make a coherent whole. Consider the following statements:

  1. His contribution was important.
  2. His ideas complemented mine.
  3. The discussion helped us reach a shared understanding of the issue.
  4. The discussion helped us achieve a consensus.

Although this metaphor is almost the opposite of the “argument as war,” it is not hard to see that, given the right conditions and environment, arguments can actually work this way. But even if the conditions are not right, use of words that allude to cooperation can itself have a positive effect on how the argument is viewed by participants. In this sense the metaphor we use to describe the act of arguing actually influences the way we argue.

Argument as journey

This metaphor, also from Lakoff and Johnson, draws on the similarities between a journey and a debate. Consider the following statements:

  1. He outlined his arguments step-by-step.
  2. I didn’t know where he was going with that idea.
  3. We are going around in circles.

Use of the “argument as journey” metaphor, sets the tone for gradual elaboration / understanding of issues as the argument unfolds. The emphasis here is on progress, as in a journey. Note that this metaphor complements the “argument as art” and “argument as cooperation” metaphors – creating a work of art can be likened to a journey and cooperation can be viewed as a collective journey. These are examples of what Lakoff and Johnson call coherent metaphors.

Argument as quest

In my view, the “argument as quest” metaphor is perhaps a particularly useful one, especially for collaborative design discussions. Consider the following statements:

  1. We explored our options.
  2. We looked for the best approach.
  3. We examined our assumptions.

This metaphor, together with the  one that views argument as as a cooperative process, capture the essence of what collaborative design should be.

In summary

The most common metaphor for argument is the first one – argument as war. It is no surprise, then, that arguments are generally viewed in a negative way. To see that this is so, one only has to look up synonyms for the word – some of these are: disagreement, bickering, fighting, altercation etc. Positive synonyms are harder to come by – exchange was the best I could find, but even that has a negative connotation in this context (an exchange of words rather than ideas).

In their book, Lakoff and Johnson speculate what the metaphor argument as dance might entail. Here’s what they have to say:

Imagine a culture where argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently and talk about them differently.

They conclude that we may not even see what they are doing as “arguing.” They would simply have a different mode of discourse from our  adversarial one.

Lakoff and Johnson tell us that metaphors influence the way we conceptualise and structure our experiences, attitudes and actions.  In this post I have discussed how different metaphors for the term argument lead to different views of and attitudes toward the act of arguing.  Now, I’m no philosopher nor am I a linguist, but it seems reasonable to me that the metaphors people use when talking about the act of arguing tell us quite a bit about the attitudes will assume in deliberations.

In short: the metaphors we argue by matter because they influence the way we argue.

Written by K

March 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm

11 Responses

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  1. K,

    (preface, the following is a light hearted retort)

    I would attack your argument, but I find myself unable to achieve the higher ground and cover, besides my building does not permit live ammunition.

    Lackoff has undoubtedly contributed greatly to the understanding of metaphor and language, yet his arguments frequently strike me as not only overreaching, but naive. Are metaphors really the basic building blocks for our reasoning? Rather, perhaps we should focus on the underlying abstract concept from which we extract and communicate the relevant aspects of that metaphor to the context.

    Surely you do not expect me to attack with a bayonet charge, don a uniform, or fire an automatic weapon from a point of cover. Let me argue further that many of the metaphors we employ are now figures of speech where the underlying metaphor is quite dead to us.

    A medieval con-man would sometimes offer to sell an unsuspecting customer a baby pig but deliver a cat. The con was that the pig was inside a bag, then called a “poke”. The unfortunate victim bought a “pig in a poke”. He discovered the swindle when he opened the sack and let the “cat out of the bag”.

    This is not to suggest that choice of words and metaphor don’t matter, but rather to suggest that they are not destiny and may be harder to engineer than it appears. Lackoff himself tripped badly in his political tome “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. He demonstrated that he is rather tone deaf (metaphorically speaking) and subject to other biases. Anyone with a high school education should easily deconstruct his Orwellian redefinition of “taxes” as “user fees”.

    I’m from Missouri regarding the efficacy of metaphor on controlling thought. The use is sometimes a transparent attempt to trivialize a concept. But after all, who was really fooled by the disingenuous use of language in “1984”


    Bill Nichols

    March 23, 2011 at 1:40 am

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your response. Although you mention that your comments are lighthearted, you make some excellent points – so I hope you won’t mind my treating them with the seriousness they merit.

      To begin with, of course I don’t expect you to attack me with a bayonet, verbal or otherwise :-). That said, folks often use verbal barbs in arguments – ad-hominem attacks, for example. (Just to be clear, I’m not implying that you have used any in your response ). From experience, I do feel that many workplace discussions are unnecessarily adversarial, sometimes even degenerating into slanging matches. Would you agree that this is a manifestation of the “argument as war” metaphor? ( Note added after posting : see Shim Marom’s comment below for an interesting take on why the “argument as war” metaphor is predominant)

      An important point is that the role of metaphor in rational/scientific thought is underappreciated. The philosophy of science – and indeed that of rational thought in general – glosses over the process of hypothesis generation, focussing instead on hypothesis testing and falsification. Metaphors are helpful in generating productive hypotheses, and many significant advances in science have come from intuition guided by metaphorical thinking. One does not have to look far for examples: Rutherford’s model of the atom is a well known one. There are many others.

      Of course, metaphors are not models, nor should they be confused with reality (although thisis argued by some). Daniela Bailer-Jones clarifies this point in a paper entitled Models, Metaphors and Analogies:

      “The task of scientific models is to facilitate (perceptual as well as intellectual) access to phenomena. While metaphors may also facilitate access to phenomena, their main characteristic is not this, but a transfer of at least one part of an expression from a source domain of application to a target domain. The implication is that the use of the expression in the source domain may be more familiar and/or better understood than its use in the target domain.”

      Also relevant is the role that personal beliefs play in scientific advancement. Michael Polanyi made this point in his book, The Tacit Dimension, and I quote:

      “…looking forward before the event, the act of discovery appears personal and indeterminate. It starts with the solitary intimations of a problem, of bits and pieces here and there which seem to offer clues of something hidden. They look like fragments of a yet unknown whole. This tentative vision must turn into a personal obsession…its content indefinable and indeterminate. Indeed, the process by which it will be brought to light will be acknowledged as a discovery precisely because it could not have been achieved by any persistence in applying explicit rules to given facts.”

      My point in quoting Polanyi is that such deeply held beliefs and intuitions are often guided by metaphorical thinking. A case in point is Bohr’s model of the atom where the metaphorical notion of electrons in stationary state orbits enabled him to construct a theory that predicted the spectrum of the hydrogen atom. The metaphor was subsequently shown to be incorrect, but that does not detract from its usefulness.

      Finally, I haven’t read Lakoff’s political works, but I don’t think they are relevant to the issue under discussion. Sure, metaphors can be (mis)used to make political points. However, this does not detract from their utility in conceptualising and understanding the world. Further, Lakoff’s political leanings – left or right (or wrong :-)) – have nothing to do with the validity (or usefulness) of his ideas in other domains. The history of science is littered with examples of scientists who, after their initial successes, came up with ideas that were incorrect – consider Einstein’s work on grand unified theories for example.

      Hope this clarifies my point of view. Thanks again for your comment – it has got me thinking about all this stuff more deeply.





      March 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm

      • K,

        I agree that metaphors can be very useful, that is, until they are not. Lackoff’s political writing demonstrates some of the pitfalls. The metaphors he offered were accepted uncritically by those predisposed to his point of view yet were derisively mocked by those felt that it trivialized their position. The latter accused Lackoff, in no uncertain terms, of disingenuity.
        If Lackoff can falter so badly, the rest of us should use the techniques with caution.

        As George Box said, “all models are wrong, some are useful”. Moreover, some are useful within a context and under limited conditions.

        The competitive nature of argument has benefits. People will often work harder to marshal their arguments and explore the space if they have a dog in the fight. (mixing metaphors is fun)

        From a coaching and facilitation standpoint, the challenge is to avoid the destructive aspects. It helps to3 have them focus on the mutual goals, use neutral language, focus on the ideas and concepts rather than the people making the claims, and bring your data. It is also important to recognize the stakes. The most inherently arguable points are those for which the arguments are well balanced. Unless the consequences are dramatically different, this is usually not productive in a business environment.

        Rather than the metaphor, I focus on known biases. Once someone has stated a position, they stand their ground rather than rather than abandon ship. Once they have taken a public stand, it is much more difficult to change their opinion. (see for example, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini)For example, telling people that they are using the wrong metaphor may elicit the same reaction as telling them that their baby is ugly.


        Bill Nichols

        March 23, 2011 at 10:59 pm

        • Bill,

          Thanks for your response.

          Sure, I agree. However, what you say about metaphor applies to any concept or technique. They all have a finite domain of utility outside which they aren’t applicable and/or useful.

          I’m not so sure about the usefulness of competition in arguments. In my experience it is better to get people to work together rather than against each other. For me the “argument as quest or cooperation” metaphor has worked well thus far, and doesn’t in any way preclude focusing on ideas and concepts. On the contrary, I think it actually encourages people to focus on ideas and concepts more than an “argument as competition or war” metaphor would. In competitive scenarios people tend to focus on winning rather than getting to a best solution for all. But of course, I accept that your experience may be very different from mine.

          Every approach has its downside. One of the pitfalls of cooperative scenarios is groupthink. However, it (and other cognitive biases) can be addressed if one is aware of them. In case you are interested, I have discussed groupthink in project environments and strategies to deal with it in another post.





          March 24, 2011 at 10:28 pm

          • K,

            As a brief aside, an element of competition has long been recognized as an element in eliciting the strongest and most complete argument for both sides. That is the basis for the adversarial system in jurisprudence and competitive debate is a sport. In the realm of science the subject was explored in a case study by Ian Mitroff,

            Merton and Mitroff,
            “Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists”

            Sorry it’s gated, I couldn’t find an open copy, though one might appear with more searching. In short, strongly held beliefs were associated with the most insufferable scientists, yet they were also acknowledged as the brightest and most creative.

            I found a recent essay that elaborates on the subject.

            Back to our main thread. The metaphor is useful for thinking about the role of argument in different ways. Metaphors can help to view from a different perspective or to communicate that perspective. I am, however, deeply skeptical that the language applicable to the metaphor actually controls our thinking. Of course the language might represent our state of mind, but it might also represent mere figures of speech. Using the chosen language to impute a metaphor can and has, ironically resulted in unintended insult.

            We should certainly not allow ad hominem, personal attack, or pointless conflict. There are of course times when we need to surface conflict so that it does not smolder under the surface.

            My guiding stars, however, are
            1) keep your eye on the ball, understand the real goals, know the stakes
            2) depersonalize the discussion, it is about ideas, not about the people supporting one idea over another
            3) have a means to resolve disputes that do not resolve themselves (best to think about this beforehand)


            William Nichols

            March 25, 2011 at 5:48 am

            • Just to be clear,

              We are largely in agreement that healthy debate can easily cross into heated and destructive argument. I also agree that changing the language (e.g. depersonalize statements) can be a useful way to avoid the arguments becoming personal.

              Rather, as Shim suggests, there may be something deeper in our nature that tends to turn these into competitions. The common metaphors reflect rather than creates this reality. Changing the metaphor is not enough. The facilitator must coach the participants in how the discussions or debates should proceed and how to know when they are over. You can use Robert’s rules or Marquis of Queensbury, but make sure everyone knows the rules.


              Bill Nichols

              March 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm

              • Bill,

                Thanks for the clarification – I think we are largely in agreement too.

                I guess my main point is that language matters because it is our primary means of communication (in meetings and discussions at any rate). It matters even more when discussing contentious issues because emotions are often close to the surface and can easily boil over. This is why our metaphors for arguments matter: if we view arguments as battles to be won, our choice of words may be unnecessarily provocative. Unfortunately, this is the way we tend to view arguments.

                As you say, a good facilitator should be able to induce the right attitudes towards debate and defuse potential problems before they occur.

                Thanks again for all your comments – I truly appreciate your reading through my article and long-winded responses.





                March 25, 2011 at 11:17 pm

  2. K,

    An(other) eloquent and evocative post.



    Al Selvin

    March 23, 2011 at 3:08 am

  3. Hi K, share Al’s sentiments as this is yet another thought provoking post.

    I am far from being an expert in this area and I’m a bit short of time to carry out a proper research now, but I suspect there would be strong evolutionary reasons why in the minds of most people (and indeed in their attitudes and behaviour) the expression of ‘argument’ will carry the first interpretation, i.e. Argument as War. I suspect that we are pre-disposed to attempting to “win” arguments as this gives us the power, prestige, and whatever other kicks we required. The other possible interpretations for ‘argument’ are all learned and superimposed skills, ones we could adopt but they require effort and education. No doubt something we should aspire to achieve as it will certainly reduce global tension and increase our collective quality of life.

    Cheers, Shim.


    Shim Marom

    March 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    • Shim,

      Thanks for the comment. That’s a very interesting idea – one which would explain why the war metaphor is the predominant one. If it is correct then the question is: can one design an environment in which the desirability of individual gain is somehow reduced? I think the answer to that is a qualified “yes.” Elinor Ostrom’s work on cooperatives shows how this might work in practice. In case you are interested, I’ve written about Ostrom’s work and its relevance to PM in another post.





      March 23, 2011 at 4:55 pm

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