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Association News: Blog

Could the mighty metaphor facilitate therapeutic change?

16 September 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Revd. Eur Ing Kevin Fear
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Revd. Eur Ing Kevin Fear, Health and Safety Strategy Lead CITB mental health in the construction sector

A book that I keep returning to again and again is called “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

The preface explains that for many, a metaphor is simply a device of poetic imagination, a rhetorical flourish that we could get along perfectly without. They argue that it is metaphorical concepts that govern our thoughts and our everyday functioning; how we perceive, how we get around the world and how we relate to others. I would therefore conclude that metaphors govern how we perceive and relate to ourselves. Faced with the mental health crisis in our industry, how can we change the metaphors that describe the construction industry and choose our words with more care? 


In order to bring some clarity they give an example of the conceptual metaphor that “argument is war”. “Your claims are indefensible”; “he attacked the weak point in my statement”; “if you use that strategy you will be shot down.” Metaphor is so embedded in how we think about ourselves and others that they are part of how we think and act.


When we begin to think deeply about mental health and well-being it is soon apparent that conceptual metaphor is embedded in the language we choose to use. We speak about “being low” or “feeling depressed” or better, “being on a high”. The orientational metaphor that “underpins” this language is that happy is “up” and sad is “down”.


Why this interests me so much is that I wonder if we could use this to reset the story that we tell about ourselves and in doing so change how we feel and act. Can we identify and seek to change the conceptual metaphors we use to describe the construction industry and the people who work in it? If we can we might just start to make some difference.


The industry has a poor mental health record. General operatives have three times the national average rate of suicides. The industry can be described as “hard”, “unforgiving” or even “brutal”. Men can be described as “closed books”, “stony faced” or “unfathomable”. I just wonder, and these thoughts are still not “set in stone”; I just wonder if we could change the nature of construction and way men think about themselves by the metaphors we choose to live by. For example, imagine for a moment how we would think and act differently if we could influence and change the abiding metaphor for “argument” from one of “war” to one of “dance”. “His statement invited me to join him and we moved together to a new position.”


I don’t pretend that this is all that it would take to make the changes that are needed to make the industry a better place in which to work but I do think that as there is a connection between the words with which we choose to describe ourselves and our thoughts and everyday functioning. If we choose our words with more care could this help us change the story?


Perhaps the reason that I keep returning to this book is because I have yet to fully understand and fully grasp Lakoff and Johnson’s reasoning. I think that this may be a key to understanding how we behave and think as we do which gives us the opportunity to use metaphor as one means to create a movement for change and as far as mental health and construction is concerned, change could not come soon enough.


Revd. Kevin Fear was one of this year’s keynote speakers at CABE Annual Conference on 4th October.