Thursday, April 10, 2014

Emotional Intelligence: Using Metaphors to Develop Resilience

Cover of "Emotional Intelligence"
Cover of Emotional Intelligence
by , International Coaching News:

Emotional Intelligence is a relatively recent behavioural model that rose to prominence with Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence - Why it can matter more than IQ.

Life coaching with a focus around emotional intelligence is becoming increasingly relevant, because its principles provide a new way to understand and assess people’s behaviours, management styles, attitudes, interpersonal skills, and potential.

Goleman identified the five key elements of emotional intelligence as:
  1. Self awareness - knowing yourself and your emotions
  2. Self regulation - managing your own emotions
  3. Motivation - motivating yourself
  4. Empathy - recognising and understanding other people’s emotions
  5. Social skills - managing relationships through managing the emotions of others and their impact
How people use their emotional intelligence contributes to the manner in which they conduct themselves, their interactions with other people and how they handle potentially stressful situations.

Stress can occur because of the way people use their emotional intelligence. Life coaching is helpful in building emotional intelligence and working through stressful issues and concerns is a good way to do this.

A core component of managing stress is referred to as resilience or mental toughness. Most dictionaries define resilience as “the ability to recover quickly from stress”.

The idea of resilience originates from material science where it describes the property of a material to resume its original shape after distortion. Toughness is an associated word that, in the same context, means the ability of a material to absorb energy and plastically deform without rupture or the resistance to fracture when stressed.

More recently, both the words “resilience” and “mental toughness” have become synonymous with handling with the stresses and strains encountered on a day-to-day basis associated with stamina, a power of endurance and an unyielding spirit.

Resilience is considered to be an ideal trait that should be encouraged and fostered. In times of continuous pressure and change, resilience is often referred to as one of the key attributes of someone with good emotional intelligence leading a successful life.

People who can use their resilience well have the ability to analyse problems, discover root causes, make changes, implement plans and manage the consequences of decisions. Being resilient enables them to quickly recover and move on from difficult situations but not at the expense of necessary change, other people and their emotions.

Coaching is a good intervention that can be deployed to develop, widen and deepen resilience as a life skill. By focusing on the process and outcomes of emotional intelligence development, many fundamentals important in the development of resilience can be explored.

These include being motivated to use self awareness around resilience to regulate emotions and to use empathy appropriately leading to reduced conflict, improvement in relationships and understanding. This, in turn, supports increasing stability, continuity and harmony.

However, resilience can be personal and very context specific. It is often considered too abstract to discuss in depth. One coaching approach that is proving to be very useful is the use of images to encourage the exploration of metaphors. 


A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by comparing it to and describing it in terms of another, otherwise, unrelated topic. This definition of metaphor includes similes, parables, analogies, parallels, literary metaphors, etc.

To the person using the metaphor it is often important in one or two dynamic ways that communicate deep, significant meaning. Paying attention and working with metaphor may enhance the results you get because

- Metaphors can represent experience more fully than abstract concepts and so enable more effective communication
-  Metaphors condense information, making things more tangible and easier to work with
- The metaphor for an experience has a similar structure to the experience that it represents
- Metaphors provide an important route into the deeper, more profound levels of a person’s thinking
- When people experience change, both the metaphor and real-life experience generally change in tandem

The word metaphor comes from the Greek word amphora, which is a storage container used for transporting valuable goods. As we use metaphor - as a means to transport meaning from one subject to another - the word metaphor is itself a metaphor.

Human beings appear to be hardwired to think in metaphor often bypassing more conscious, critical faculties. Whenever there is a need to describe abstract, complex or emotional situations, we are likely to use a more concrete metaphor to pass on information to others.

This arises as it is almost impossible to describe our internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without using metaphor. We are also hardwired to respond to metaphor because of our interest in storytelling, anecdotes, etc. 

Images of Resilience 

Because resilience can be intangible and abstract, an approach that has been found to be helpful in coaching scenarios is the use of images that encourage the use of metaphors.

These can facilitate the exploration of different facets of resilience and its connections with stress, change, challenge and the potential for learning. The dialogue that opens might otherwise be too risky or challenging to be tackled directly.

Good images support discussions around how resilience can be used to enhance experiences rather than leading to ineffective or damaging behaviour. Questions can be introduced that allow for exploration of meaning promoting discussion around how strategies can be developed to build resilience and ways to cope with stress more effectively.

Carefully selected images can be used with individuals or in small groups. Challenging people to think deeper about these images and the underlying metaphors gives rise to insights far beyond those expected.

If any strong emotions are shown towards any image, then investigating what those emotions are and why the person feels them may elicit some very valuable information about resilience.

The coaching focus should be around
  1. what resilience is and what it means for the individual
  2. when resilience is needed
  3. what qualities and skills can be developed to enhance the use of resilience
Use of Metaphor and Clean Language

Everyone’s way of experiencing the world is different yet all communication directs attention in some way. Any coaching that uses metaphor can be enhanced considerably by the use of Clean Language.

Clean Language is ‘clean’ because it keeps the coach from unwittingly introducing their own metaphors, ideas or suggestions into a conversation (no matter how well meaning these may be).

Coaching using Clean Language questions includes the practice of listening and observing with full attention on the words being used (and non-verbal signals) without giving advice, sharing opinions or adding in any assumptions around the metaphors used.

Clean questions encourage metaphors, ideas, self-reflections and any light bulb moments to take shape in awareness. When personal change is the goal, Clean Language invites a coachee’s perceptions to evolve and to change organically - one question at a time.

This is important so that the person can do their very best thinking, can explore their inner world and take responsibility for their own choices.

Using Clean Language is a special branch of coaching in its own right well. It is not an easy technique but, in combination with using images and metaphors, it is well worth the effort.

In the absence of any good commercially available support material to enhance resilience through training and coaching, Ei4Change has developed a coaching toolbox with RSVP Design (a global designer of activity-based and experiential learning tools).

Images of Resilience is a set of 16 images supplied three times within the toolbox with supporting coaching notes and a series of carefully crafted coaching questions.

These probing questions allow for an exploration of the metaphor depicted discover what resilience means for the individual, the situations when resilience is needed and the qualities and skills that can be developed to enhance the use of resilience.

The images are intended to be used in close dialogue with a coach / facilitator as part of a development programme to gain maximum benefit.

Further information is available at  and

Article adapted from Pulla V., Shatte A., Warren S. (2012), Perspectives of Coping and Resilience, Author Press (ISBN 8172737157)
Robin Hills is Director of Ei4Change - an organisation specialising in emotional intelligence training, personal development and coaching. He has over 30 years’ experience in sales, marketing and business psychology.
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