Do the Experts Mean What Their Metaphors Say? An Exploration of Metaphor in Mediation Literature

17 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2004 Last revised: 2 Jun 2009

Date Written: November 15, 2003


[This is an extended version of of an article later published as "When Experts Educate, What Do Their Metaphors Say? Complex Metaphor Structure in the Professional Conflict Resolution Literature" in Ibérica 17 [2009]: 175-196,]

Much of what mediators do will be influenced by how they think about the mediation process. This, in turn, depends on powerful, implicit metaphors - consciously or unconsciously adopted - about what the mediation process is and what mediators and negotiators do.

Metaphors are needed not only because mediation is a complex, subjectively experienced process involving inner states and abstract concepts that are best understood figuratively, but also because metaphoric language can communicate so much richness so quickly. For example, mediation is often understood as a journey, not only for disputants but also for mediators who prepare their clients to leave their positions, take steps to discover what underlies them, consider optional routes and follow the one leading to the best available destination.

The training of mediators depends heavily on metaphors that give concrete form to abstract ideas. What mediators learn or understand from a book or article about mediation comes partly from the explicit logic and literal meanings expressed, and partly from everyday metaphors used in the text. When underlying metaphors are known we can better ask the questions needed for improved understanding.

This is a report on the descriptive phase of an ongoing study of the metaphor structure in expert mediator texts. The study draws on conceptual metaphor theory - an interdisciplinary effort in cognitive linguistics and psychology. Metaphors were detected in 700 pages of selected professional literature.

Seven interrelated clusters of metaphors were found to be used repeatedly. Any of these metaphors alone oversimplifies and distorts descriptions of conflict and the mediation process. When the metaphor clusters are used together much of the complexity is reconstituted, if somewhat rearranged. Due to unconscious and uncoordinated use of metaphor, expert mediators inevitably are innocent of what their metaphors say. Greater awareness of the metaphors documented here could reduce inconsistency between literal and figurative meanings, promote more coherence and allow greater complexity and realism to be achieved.

Keywords: metaphor, mediation, mediator metaphors, cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor

Suggested Citation

Smith, Thomas H., Do the Experts Mean What Their Metaphors Say? An Exploration of Metaphor in Mediation Literature (November 15, 2003). iHEA 2007 6th World Congress: Explorations in Health Economics Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Thomas H. Smith (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

Boulder, CO 80304
United States

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