Wind, Rain, Destruction – and Metaphors

APHA members received a note from us this week with some expectation management. That is… we’re prepared, and are hunkering down, for Hurricane Irma. Our offices, located in Central Florida, will likely lose power over the next few days as Irma makes her way through; meaning, of course, that office communication may come to a standstill until power is restored.

Honestly – it’s like knowing you’re about to get a tooth pulled. There’s pain before, you know there will be pain after, and you’re just waiting for it to be over with so you can get on with life, but with that additional dread of not knowing exactly what kind of pain you’ll be dealing with in the aftermath.

What? Like getting a tooth pulled? Yes – metaphorically – that’s exactly what waiting for a hurricane is like. Take it from me!

As we’ve watched weather models and meteorologists on TV, and as we’ve seen what friends and neighbors have posted to social media, I’m struck by how effective metaphors can be to help someone understand something they have not experienced themselves.

Huge, in fact!

I’ve spoken and written in metaphors all my adult life. I credit my teacher training for that (8 years of my early career as an elementary grade teacher). Metaphors were a good way to teach math, history, and other subjects. Describing history in terms that were more current and understandable to them, or rewording math problems, could help them get past learning blocks.

As I scroll through previous blog posts, I find metaphors in abundance:

One of the metaphors I use most frequently is one you should keep in your explanation arsenal, too. That is, a description of independent, private patient advocacy:

When you need legal help, you call a lawyer. When you need tax help, you call a tax accountant. When you want a great haircut, you visit your hairdresser. When you professional need help with any aspect of the healthcare system – you call a patient advocate.

See? By comparing patient advocacy to professions that people already understand well, they better understand patient advocacy. Now they get it!

Metaphors are a highly effective communications tool using comparisons to everyday understandable concepts that will be appreciated by clients, potential clients, and anyone else (including family and friends) from whom you want to garner understanding. They can be an incredibly powerful aid to understanding everything from diagnoses, to how the body works, to treatment and its effects, to system navigation. Even the word “navigation” is a metaphor; it’s a comparison to travel.

How to Use Metaphors in Your Advocacy Practice

  1. Since metaphors are a communications tool, then our first step is to consider who we are communicating with. Example: we need to make different metaphor/comparison choices when we speak to a child than we would to an adult. We might make different choices between men and women. We might also make nuanced choices between Seahawks vs Patriots vs Cowboys vs Bears vs non-sports fans…. you get the picture. If/when you know a little something about the person you’re speaking to, you can choose a comparison to something more personally important or understandable to them.
  2. The next step is to choose the comparison you want to make based on your knowledge of the person and his/her interests. The year I taught fifth grade, we had a social studies unit on the Civil War. To help my students better understand slavery and discrimination, I divided the class by eye color, something that was very clear to all of them. For one week the brown-eyed kids were like the slave owners and the blue-eyed kids were treated like slaves, and then the next week, vice versa. Bottom line, that metaphor of eye-color to slavery got them thinking about how unfair and wrong that kind of treatment was, especially when it was based on something they were born with and couldn’t change (skin color to eye color.) They really got it.
  3. Finally – just share your metaphor. Better yet, get your client engaged in helping you further the metaphor. Discuss the many aspects of your metaphor that are similar and different. They all aid understanding.
  4. You can even ask your client to use metaphors to more clearly describe something to you, or to their provider. Patients with Multiple Sclerosis, when asked to describe a strange sensation they were experiencing, described it as “ants running all over my body.” If you’ve never had that same sensation, you certainly better understand it now.

Can you go overboard or choose an inappropriate metaphor? Yes – you can. For example, it turns out that many cancer patients hate the concept of describing cancer in war terms. They will tell you they aren’t “fighting” or “battling” cancer, that they aren’t trying to “win the war on cancer,” and other such descriptions. Again, you must know your audience. Focus on the person you are communicating with, their interests and needs. Tread softly, and ask questions to understand their tolerance.

Do you use metaphors? Or can you think of any good ones to share? Please do so below.

For my part, today, I’m just going to continue to hunker down and wait for Hurricane Irma to pass. Honestly, it’s just like the colonoscopy I had last week (yeah, it’s been a quite a week!) The prep was bad enough… Then you’re kept in the dark while you’re going through it. You come out of it ready to deal with the results. And it takes you (at least) days to get over it, regroup, fix whatever needs fixing, then it’s time to get on with life.

Don’t like a colonoscopy? Then you won’t like a hurricane either.

I expect all you Harvey, Katrina, Sandy, Ike, Rita, Wilma, and Charley people will agree.


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