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The Road to Hell is Paved with Metaphors
Howard Gadlin, Andrea Kupfer Schneider
& Chris Honeyman
Editors’ Note: Metaphors are so deeply embedded in our minds that they are, to a large extent, how we think. This creates an enormous trap for negotiators, as they not only tend to start out with metaphors for conflict handling that derive from war, but tend not to notice their assumptions. Yet metaphor can be the key to a solution, as well as the central problem. The authors argue that developing a holistic understanding is the essential element in using metaphor creatively—that, and avoiding letting a metaphor creep up on us, like a thief in the night.
When one talks about meaning in human communication, inevitably one must talk about metaphor. Students of negotiation looking to understand what conflicts are really about have discovered the importance of metaphor (Cohen 2003; Jones and Hughes 2003; Docherty 2004). This work has been inspired by the research and writings of George Lakoff (1999) and his colleagues, who have demonstrated that much of abstract thinking is dependent upon metaphor, and that we can more fully grasp how someone understands a matter, and the emotions associated with that understanding, through a careful examination of the metaphors by which they describe it. Even on the most bare-bones practical level, it turns out, an awareness of metaphor is important to any negotiator who hopes to jog someone out of an unproductive pattern of thinking.
The interest in metaphors parallels in some respects the interest in framing; both are concerned to explicate how disputants understand their own disputes, how they see those with whom they are in dispute, and how they experience the dispute resolution processes through which they address the disputes. This interest is, again, more than academic; people who work regularly with people in conflict learn very quickly that there is typically much more to a conflict than there appears to be at first. Aristotle wrote about the dual nature of metaphor when giving advice on rhetoric and how to craft persuasive arguments. He noted that metaphors can be incredibly helpful and persuasive when used appropriately and yet could be seen as deviations from clear language. As we outline below, certain metaphors can help disputants see the other side or see the dispute differently. At the same time, there is a danger of exacerbating the most antagonistic and destructive elements of conflict.
When these disputes are in the legal framework, the metaphors for the adversary system contribute even more to the danger of competitive and destructive assumptions. Famed jurist Benjamin Cardozo wrote close to 100 years ago, “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.” (Berkey v. Third Ave 1926) As Cardozo noted, common metaphors in law, from piercing the corporate veil to the wall of separation between church and state, can lead to sloppy rather than careful thinking. In negotiation, the danger is perhaps even greater where we are unconsciously using metaphors to set the emotional tone of the negotiation, define the relationship, and outline the rules.
Common Metaphors in Conflict
Metaphors often are used to describe the parties in conflict, the structure of the conflict and the potential strategies used. Perhaps the most common (and overused) metaphor in conflict is war. We are fighting, my lawyer is my knight in shining armor or gladiator, and my arguments will demolish them. We attack weak points, we parry their thrusts, and we hope our iron-clad arguments are right on target. We can adopt a “take no prisoners” attitude.
Another common metaphor for negotiation is sports or games. We play for our team or we are in a boxing match. We might lay our cards on the table, go to the mat, or play hardball. Or sometimes we are in the....
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Berkey v. Third Ave. Ry. Co., 155 N.E. 58, 61 (N.Y.1926).
Cohen, J. 2003. Adversaries? Parties? How about Counterparts? On Metaphors in the Practice and Teaching of Negotiations and Dispute Resolution. Conflict Resolution Quarterly 20: 433-40.
Docherty, J. 2004. Narrative, Metaphors, and Negotiations. Marquette Law Review 87: 847-51.
Goschler, J. 2007. Metaphors in Cognitive and Neurosciences: Which Impact have Metaphors on scientific theories and models? metaphorik.de 12 (online journal).
Jones, W. and S. Hughes. 2003. Complexity, Conflict Resolution, and How the Mind Works. Conflict Resolution Quarterly 20: 485-94.
Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books.
Lederach, J.P. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.
Menkel-Meadow, C., L. Love, A. K. Schneider and J. Sternlight. 2005. Dispute Resolution: Beyond the Adversarial Model, 2d edn. New York: Aspen.
Sapolsky, R. 2010. This is Your Brain on Metaphors, The Stone https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/this-is-your-brain-on-metaphors/