Min Xiaomao

July 2005

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Hayakawa once pointed out that "metaphors are not ornaments of discourse," but are "direct expressions of evaluation and are bound to occur whenever we have strong feelings to express."[1] In the context of intractable conflicts, wherein extraordinary events often give rise to extraordinary human responses, the increased use of metaphor would come without surprise. Metaphors help disputants and observers understand and communicate to others about things that are occurring, framing events in a way that gives meaning in their own worldview. These metaphors–and the implied meanings–can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive. As such, they can help frame the conflict in a way that will make it more likely to be transformed, or in a way that will make it more likely to polarize and escalate. This essay examines both types of metaphors by giving many examples, and suggesting how these examples can either benefit or harm conflict transformation.

Different Types of Metaphor

Conflict scholars Hocker and Wilmont maintain that "Conflict brings up such strong feelings that metaphoric analysis, of both the process of conflict and specific conflicts, aids in analysis, intervention and lasting change."[2] However, as they illustrate themselves, not all metaphors turn out to be of "aiding" nature. Metaphors can be divided into three categories, according to their impacts on conflict dynamics, 1) negative ones that undermine the capacity for conflict resolution, 2) neutral ones that do no harm or good, and 3) positive ones which expand the potential for strategic transformation.[3]

Negative Metaphors

Conflict as a Battle

Hocker and Wilmot observe that"war and violence is the central metaphor of conflict in the United States and Western Europe."[4] They list numerous "military" and "explosive" metaphors[5] which are commonly used in U.S. speech. For example: "accusations are ‘hurled back and forth;'" arguments are said to be "right on target," people are described as "having a short fuse," or "are about to blow up."[6]

Such hostile metaphors greatly restrict the emergence of original ideas for conflict resolution, since a perception of warring groups fighting against each other on a battlefield usually provokes parties into antagonistic positions, each pushing hard for a "win-lose" outcome, instead of a mutually acceptable resolution.[7]

Conflict as a Struggle

Conflict is also framed as a struggle:[8] we are "on a sinking ship with no lifeboat," "traveling a rocky road," or "working with a checkbook that won't balance."[9] These metaphors all suggest struggle, frustration, even hopelessness. Indeed, chances are good that the complexity and uncertainty of intractable conflict will lead to such emotions. Framing a conflict with this type of metaphor emphasizes how draining it is and that efforts to continue the struggle may ultimately prove worthless.

Violence as Animal Behaviors

Conflict is sometimes described as "a zoo"[10] in which people label the other parties "stubborn as a mule", or agitated in a "feeding frenzy".[11] One particular characteristic of this kind of metaphor, which distinguishes it from the previous two, is its exclusive application to parties other than the one using it. Based on the perception that other parties are less-than-human and inferior, animal-like references may be responsible for enemy images, escalating mutual incrimination and spiraling hostility, thus significantly obstructing the creation of an atmosphere in which meaningful conversation can take place with mutual understanding and appreciation.

Neutral Metaphors

Conflict as a Game

The most typical example in this category is to compare conflict to a game. That is why people often talk about "toss[ing] the ball into his court," or "go[ing] back and forth,"[12] Comparatively speaking, a "game" has a more friendly and amicable connotation than "war", and indicates less bitterness than "struggle." Meanwhile, by recognizing all parties as equal game players, this metaphor alludes to certain degree of mutual respect. Nevertheless, since this metaphor is based on the assumption of existing rules, its effectiveness is limited in intractable conflicts. Only when parties involved follow the same set of rules, can desirable goals can be achieved.[13]

Positive Metaphors

Conflict as a Tide

Conflict and tides are similar in that both are "repetitive, powerful, and inescapable".[14] But they can be understood and worked with to advantage, not disadvantage.[15] It is arguable that the pattern of conflict, however elusive it appears to be, is not completely beyond comprehension. Intractable conflicts ebb and flow just as tides do. If participants understand the pattern, it can seem less threatening. Seeing the pattern also helps reduce the fear of uncertainty, especially in the context of intractable conflict.[16]

Conflict as a Dance

As Hocker and Wilmot observe: "The whole idea of dancing with partners is to create something beautiful, graceful, and inspiring that depends on each person's skill, training, and individual expression."[17] An article dealing with the remarkable impact of ever-increasing economic independence between Mainland China, Taiwan and the US, for instance, is titled "Dancing with the Enemy".[18] Community Mediation Service Mediator, Nancy Ferrell had a similar image of the mediator's interaction with the conflicting parties: Note: this was in the original in 8, but got left out of this version, perhaps because it was to be put in as an inset. But if it is to be put in as an inset, don't we need to have the inset marked somehow? I would prefer this in as a full-width inset because then you wouldn't have to renumber all the footnotes!

I was in the middle of a mediation one time, sitting around a table. Because of the dynamics of what was going on, I realized that I was kind of having to move back and forth with the parties with where they were with their anger and frustration, with the establishment's sense of indignation, and trying to move with them and keep them moving toward the goal that I had. That goal was for them to begin to talk to each other. I realized that when mediation and conflict resolution is really working well, the mediator can go in with the skills he or she has, but listen to the parties and move with them on their level of info, frustration, indignation, whatever that is, empathizing with and understanding them, whatever their mood or tune, or dance is at that time. If you're not willing to dance with them, they're not going to trust you. They'll play my tune later if I've danced with them. But if I haven't been willing to dance with them they're not willing to play my tune, they're not going to go with me, when I want to take them somewhere. I think that kind of movement is what captures me when I'm thinking about mediation. It's exciting. You go in, and some people are just doing the tango and you've gotta go with that. You're trying to get them to some harmony, maybe a waltz. I don't know music that well, which is kind of interesting that I use that imagery, but it just fits so well for me.

When I teach mediation, I use that imagery with new students, you have to be willing to understand where the parties are. Think about it in terms of being willing to dance with them. You may not enjoy the rumba, but if that's where they are, you're going to have to start there and then move with them and get them to where they trust you enough to take the rhythm that you've got going for the mediation. – Nancy Ferrell interview, Sept. 9, 1999. Available online at

Such a "collaborative image"[19] can help parties develop the psychological basis for a collaborative effort in search of a favorable outcome from which each party can benefit.

The Use of Positive Metaphors

John Paul Lederach uses positive metaphors extensively in his 2005 book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Lederach's mastery of metaphors allowed him to effectively and vividly convey the essence conflict transformation and peacebuilding, which for him is the crossroad between vocation, art and life.

Metaphors Facilitating the Appreciation of the Nature of Conflict:

Conflict as a Continental Divide

"Settings of protracted conflict...might best be understood with the metaphor of a continental divide." By explaining the pattern of water flow between two opposite shores due to the divide, Lederach continues: "In social conflict these two distant shores are fear and love...The question at each moment of violent conflict and its sustained cycle is that: Which way will the water flow that defines our relationship, toward the shore of fear or that of love?"[20]

Metaphors Demonstrating Current Problems in Peacebuilding:

Exclusion as a Denial of Voice

Noticing that people often complain in peace processes of a denial of "voice" in decision-making, Lederach points out that "Metaphorically, voice constitutes a social geography mapped and measured by the distance needed to create a sense of engagement."[21] According to him, voice has two-fold indications, namely, "meaningful conversation" based on "mutuality, understanding and accessibility", as well as the capability to make a difference through conversation.[22]

Reconciliation as a Land of Forgetfulness

To remember and change, the true recipe for reconciliation, "is not [achieved] by creating a land of forgetfulness. Social a recipe for weak communities incapable of true identity and correspondingly genuine relationships."[23] By contrast, reconciliation requires us "to explore the uncharted waters of the art and soul of social change."[24]

Metaphors Emphasizing the Importance of Transformative Approach

Peace Accords as Temporary Antacids

Rather than short-term resolutions, Lederach maintains that peace agreements should be recognized as "social and political antacids, temporary acid reducers that creates an exit for symptomatic problems and an opportunity to create a way to work on repeated patterns and cycles of destructive relationships...The big picture is less about how the antacid calms the churning pain and more about how it creates a social moment wherein deeper change can be pursued in the relational context."[25]

Transformative Platform as Sidewalks

When referring to the "transformative platform", Lederach observes: "An image that approximates this understanding can be found in the moving sidewalks in many modern airports. To the moving sidewalk, we add a trampoline. The sidewalk continuously moves across time, and the trampoline has the capacity to launch new ideas in response to unexpected and emerging problems. As such, a platform is responsive to day-to-day issues that arise in the ebb and flow of conflict [note the use of the tide metaphor!], while it sustains a clear vision of the longer-term change needed in the destructive relational patterns."[26]

Metaphors Revealing the Key Concepts in Conflict Transformation


Peacebuilding as Web-weaving


According to Lederach, individuals are not isolated entities. Rather, "Time and again, where in small or large ways the shackles of violence are broken, we find a singular tap root that gives life to the moral imagination: the capacity of individuals and communities to imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies."[27] Therefore, the essence of the web approach, as he argues, lies in "an imaginative meditative capacity".[28]


After explaining in detail the process of a spider's web making, Lederach maintains that peacebuiding is essentially "the art of strategically and imaginatively weaving relational webs across social spaces within settings of protracted violent conflict."[29] In spite of the extreme complexity in such situations, the success of peacebuilding lies in an "art of simplicity", which involves the basic skills to identify and create relational spaces, the ability to attend and build relational connections, and the "smart" flexibility to adjust to both expected and unexpected challenges.[30]


Critical Individuals as Critical Yeast


Another case in point is the metaphor of "critical yeast". As opposed to common wisdom which holds the quantity of participants as the decisive factor for social change, Lederach holds that what is equally, if not more important, is "the quality of the platform [for social shift]" composed of "a few strategically connected people" with great potentiality to invoke significant expansion and sustaining development of the platform.[31] Such a group of people, according to him, is analogous to yeast, a small amount of which can play an essential role in baking a loaf of palatable bread. On the other hand, however, there would be little social change without the interaction between "critical yeast" and the rest of the public, given that without mixing it into other ingredients under appropriate moisture and temperature, yeast itself cannot make any difference.[32]


Mobilizing Process as Siphon Mechanism


The significance of such a "strategic set of people", as termed by Lederach, is also demonstrated through Lederach's "siphon" metaphor. The principle of siphon is simple: to create a momentum by moving a small portion of liquid against gravity, and the rest will be "automatically" moved on by virtue of gravity.[33] This mechanism can also be applied to the process of social change. As Lederach points out, by identifying people capable of bringing about the momentum to mobilize the mass, and providing them with adequate support from outside, peacebuilders can facilitate positive changes making use of existing resources from inside.[34]


Metaphors Illustrating the Necessary Qualities of Peacebuilders


Flexible Approach as Tunnel-carving through Active Volcano


The traditional approach of conflict resolution, as Lederach points out, focuses on professional skills to identify, analyze and resolve substantive issues on which conflicts are centered.[35] Important as this is, this approach has proven to be far from effective in practice due to the creation of a "tunnel vision."Tunnel vision fails to take into account the changing nature of the environment, but rather has the single goal to "seek the light" at the other end of the tunnel through a linear pathway.[36] Alternatively, Lederach suggests, the context of conflict "is more akin to a sea than a rock...[which]occupies a great space that links the past with the future, and we live in a constantly moving, ebbing and flowing present [again the tide metaphor.]" So the question in front of us, Lederach suggests, should be: How to "carve a tunnel through an active volcano".[37] In other words, flexibility and serendipity[38] rather than static visions and sophisticated skills, are two requirements for generating constructive social change.


Deep Listening as a Sword to Penetrate Ambiguity


In order to emphasize the significance of "deep listening" for mediators to "penetrate the great clouds of ambiguity", Lederach compared capturing the essence of people's story-telling to "the spring that bubbles from intuition", arguing that "a mediator with too many words does not hear the bubbling...[and one] incapable of touching intuition misses the flow."[39]


Creativity as a Seed in Soil


"Below and above, outside and beyond the narrow walls with which violence wishes to enclose our human community, we must live with trust that creativity, divinely embedded in the human spirit, is always within reach. Like a seed in the ground, creative capacity lies dormant, filled with potential that can give rise to unexpected blossoms that create turning points and sustain constructive change."[40] Creativity is not an exclusive asset specially bestowed to artists. It is the thing deeply embedded within everyone since our birth. All we need to do, consequently, is to unearth the otherwise buried creativity and try to achieve its highest potential in designing peacebuilding strategies.


Metaphors Helping maintain an Optimistic Perspective in Peacebuilding


Desirable Outcome as a Farther Shore


Peacebuilders must realize "the hard realities of living in settings of violence and the lessons we can learn---ironically---from pessimism and from those who survive without losing sight of what poet Seamus Heaney calls the ‘farther shore'."[41] This indicates that, far as it might be, there is a "shore" existing and awaiting us to arrive, like fatigued and hopeless sailors finally find the land.


The Underlying Dynamics as Rhythms amidst Cacophony


"The moral imagination, if it is to penetrate and transcend, must find the soul of place...[which] requires that we go to the core, that we make our way to the voices behind the noise, that we see the patterns hidden beneath the presenting symptoms, that we feel the rhythms marking steady pace in spite of the cacophony."[42] This also reminds me of Martin Luther King's famous ambition "to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood".[43]


Metaphors Stressing the Long-term Nature of Social Change


Platform as Skin/a River


The platform for social change, according to Lederach, should be able to adapt to the dynamic context in which it is rooted. In the meantime, however, an ultimate direction should also be envisioned to avoid possible chaos.[44] To illustrate this point, he refers to two metaphors: skin and river.[45]


Skin--There is little dispute that our skin is in a process of constant renewal throughout our whole lives. Though changes are far from noteworthy on a daily basis, significant differences can be easily perceived over years.[46] Moreover, in addition to external stimuli, the pattern of such changes is largely determined by the intrinsic function of skin itself, as well as the genes of individuals.


River--Perhaps everyone has such an experience: you can feel the moving fluidity of a river by stepping into it, but you cannot get an idea of its general shape and direction unless you view it from a higher place and at a distance.[47] Thus if we compare social change to a "swirling river",[48] by the same token, it follows that effective peacebuilding practitioners should have not only the courage to immerse themselves in the river in order to gasp the dynamics of possible change, but also, more importantly, they need to step back from time to time for the sake of reflection and deliberation.[49]


Social Changes as Fruit


In settings of protracted conflict, the evaluation of social change should be achieved by virtue of "a wait-and-see approach".[50] Referring to the phrase from the Bible that "you shall know them by their fruit", Lederach argues that under such circumstances, "judging change is a reiterative process, accumulated and built slowly over time, and one that is easily destroyed with a single wrong move or action."[51] Just as no fruit will ripen overnight, nor can it emerge without soil and natural conditions in which it is gradually nurtured, neither can peace come about quickly or without being provided the proper nutrients and care.[52]




Peacebuilding is "a journey toward a land totally unfamiliar."[53] It generates tremendous challenges to committed individuals in terms of energy, intellect, and mentality. In the face of protracted violence and unexpected chaos, not surprisingly, peacebuilders often find themselves stranded and fatigued, like adventurers fumbling through a thick forest without knowing where to head. Most of them might long for a compass, yet few of them will remember the magic tool deeply buried in their kit---the imagination and creativity which can afford them a pair of wings to fly above and appreciate the beauty all around them.


Positive metaphor, in particular, is such a remarkable tool. It helps enlarge the space for desirable changes by liberating and encouraging our imagination and creativity. Such a reciprocally-enhancing process is critical for conflict transformation and peacebuilding. This is probably the reason why Lederach has incorporated "the aesthetics of metaphor" into his peacebuilding work:


"I have come to treat metaphor as if it were a canvas. Metaphor is a creative act. The spontaneous way it is formulated brings something new into the world. This something new interacts with the world and has a life. It creates an image of what the experience of living in the world is like...I approach [metaphor] as a creation [without instrumentalist purposes in mind].The metaphor---like a movie, a painting, or a poem---invites interaction, probing, and echoes. Sometimes I is much better to sit with [metaphor] for a while. Let it roll around in your head and heart. I write metaphors down on anything I have handy, a dinner receipt, the stub of a ticket, and I carry them in my pockets. At some point I go back and take a more careful look, a second listen. In conflict conversations I don't just listen for metaphors, I watch them. They take on lives of their own and they speak to the conflict, to the problems, and to the ways forward. Metaphors are like a living museum of conflict resources. They usually lead me toward an aesthetic appreciation of the context, the process, and the challenges of change."[54]



[1] Hayakawa, S.I. Language in Thought and Action. 4th ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978): 109.


[2] Hocker, Joyce L. and Wilmot, William W., Interpersonal Conflict, 4th ed. (Madison: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1993): 6.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid.7.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] Ibid.


[9] McCorckle, S. and Mills, J. "Rowboat in a Hurricane: Metaphors of Interpersonal Conflict Management.", in Communication Reports 5, no.2, 1992: 57-66.


[10] Ibid.


[11] Hocker, Joyce L. and Wilmot, William W., Interpersonal Conflict, 4th ed. (Madison: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1993): 9.


[12] Ibid. 10-11.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Ibid. 12.


[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid. 12-13.


[17] Ibid. 13.


[18] Economist; Jan. 15, 2005, Vol. 374 Issue 8409, p3A.


[19] Ibid.


[20] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 42.


[21] Ibid. 56.


[22] Ibid.


[23] Ibid. 62.


[24] Ibid. 63.


[25] Ibid. 48.


[26] Ibid. 47.


[27] Ibid.34.


[28] Ibid. 95.


[29] Ibid. 84.


[30] Ibid. 73-85.


[31] Ibid. 91-93


[32] Ibid.


[33] Ibid. 93-94.


[34] Ibid.


[35] Ibid. 117.


[36] Ibid. 117-118.


[37] Ibid. 118.


[38] Lederach refers to "serendipity" as "the capacity to situate oneself in a changing environment with a sense of direction and purpose and at the same time develop an ability to see and move with the unexpected."


[39] Ibid. 70.


[40] Ibid. 173.


[41] Ibid. 40.


[42] Ibid. 103.


[43] Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream, at, accessed on May. 1, 2005.


[44] Op Cit. 128.


[45] Ibid.


[46] Ibid.


[47] Ibid.


[48] Ibid. 123.


[49] Ibid.


[50] Ibid. 57.


[51] Ibid.


[52] Ibid.


[53] Ibid. 164.


[54] Ibid. 72.

Use the following to cite this article:
Min, Xiaomao. "Metaphors." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2005 <>.


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