Metaphorical Thinking: the Definition and Theory

Metaphorical Thinking - Toolshero

Metaphorical Thinking: this article describes Metaphorical Thinking Or Thinking in Metaphors in a practical way. This article contains a general definition of Metaphorical Thinking, the power of a metaphorical comparison, techniques and examples. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful creativity tool. Enjoy reading!

What is Metaphorical Thinking / Thinking in Metaphors?

A metaphor means comparing two things that in reality are not literally the same. This is the foundation of Metaphorical Thinking. Metaphors were considered a sign of genius by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

According to him, the individual who can perceive the similarity between two very different concepts, was intelligent and had a special gift.

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By making a metaphorical comparison between a complex problem and a recognisable situation, other people can understand what is meant right away.

The power of a metaphorical comparison

Important to note while trying to make new comparisons is that metaphors are different from regular comparisons, or similes. Both compare different objects, but a metaphorical comparison is more powerful. That is because a metaphorical comparison uses the phrasing “is” instead of “is like”.

In this way a metaphorical comparison can be taken to mean that the two objects in the comparison are completely the same in the view in which the metaphor is used. A metaphorical comparison points strongly to the essence of two objects that is the same.

A regular comparison compares objects which are only partly the same and therefore similar. A metaphorical and regular comparison can be distinguished based on the objects being the same or merely similar. This is mainly expressed in the phrasing.

A strong metaphor is the base of metaphorical thinking. It can form the base of understanding by explaining a new and unfamiliar concept with the metaphor of a commonly known idea. By substituting parts of the new idea for familiar concepts, metaphorical thinking can assist in explaining and creating understanding.


Metaphorical Thinking might seem strange, but eventually it will lead to more insight. Thinking in metaphors brings other solutions to the surface.

Using metaphors encourages creativity. It is a soft thinking technique that connects and compares two different meanings. After all, people tend to look for similarities. That helps them to grasp complex issues.

Trying to understand things through logic alone disrupts the creative process. Metaphorical Thinking is a powerful tool for looking at things in a new way. That is why it is used a lot in the world of advertising and marketing.


Metaphors conjure up lively images and help us to look at things from a new perspective in order to understand them better. It opens eyes and people are more able to comprehend problems and gain insight into solutions. Metaphorical Thinking can help when considering a problem and its solution.

Thoughts are exposed to related concepts and those are then compared to each other. Using comparisons stimulate creative ideas to solve problems. The key to Metaphorical Thinking is looking for similarities or parallels.

Metaphorical Thinking example

Metaphors are used a lot in our everyday language. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. A well-known one is ‘time is money’; an expression that compares ‘time’ and ‘money’. At first glance, these concepts seem to be unrelated.

By thinking of time as money, you can conjure up some powerful images. Wasting time is like throwing money down the drain, and spending time on something is making an investment for the future. This way, Metaphorical Thinking opens people’s eyes to the similarities between disparate things.

Another example is comparing a badly-run organisation to a sinking ship. A sinking ship is beyond saving. That means that something needs to happen if the organisation wants to have any hope for survival.

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Metaphorical Thinking: outside of established frameworks

Creativity starts to flow when you step outside of established frameworks and think out of the box.

When using a metaphor, you combine two elements that have little or no logical connection. Breaking the rules of logic like this allows metaphors to access the creative side of our brains. This is the part that is stimulated by images, ideas and concepts.

That way, Metaphorical Thinking can help you to come up with creative solutions to problems or provide clear insight into complex situations. Think for instance of a company that is confronted with high production costs. They will first look for obvious solutions including a search for new technologies or analysing the inefficient production processes.

That might eventually lead to cost reductions, but does it really get to the core of the issue? The point is to reduce the high costs. Now, a metaphorical comparison can be made with an overweight person who wants to lose weight.

By doing this, the brain starts to approach the problem from a completely different perspective, which will lead to different solutions. Losing weight is now compared to getting rid of excess ballast (too high production costs). Metaphorical thinking in this example is explained further in the step-by-step plan below:

1. Identify the metaphor for the problem

Losing weight (ballast) equals lowering the high production costs.

2. Solutions for the metaphorical problem

How to lose weight. By brainstorming with the entire team, new ideas will emerge about how someone can lose weight. This is where the initial focus lies. Every extra kilo is metaphorically equal to the extra euros spent on production costs.

In order to lose weight, someone could keep track of foods high in calories and foods low in calories, eat less, only stick to diet foods, drink a lot of water, exercise more to burn calories or join a weight-loss club.

Many of the ideas will be linked to the actual problem in the end. That’s why it’s best to come up with as many ideas as possible during this phase.

3. Translating to real solutions

The metaphorical solutions can now be linked to the real problem and provide insight into actual solutions. Counting calories for instance can be translated to stricter monitoring of what goes into the company.

Burning calories through repetitive exercises leads to more recycling or reusing of raw materials in the production process.

By keeping better track of what one should and shouldn’t eat, an organisation can monitor the inflow of products and raw materials much more strictly. Limiting certain foods leads to better supplier price comparisons and more negotiating with them. Only eating low-calorie foods can be translated as using cheaper and/or alternative raw materials.

Drinking a lot of water keeps everything flowing; that’s also true for a production process. No longer using wasteful process (washing away resources) The final idea is joining a weight-loss club.

A sounding board can be a good thing and lead to continuity and new insights. By discussing and sharing cost-saving measures with other departments, the production department can find support and monitor progress better.

Metaphorical Thinking and Communication

Using metaphors is a matter of language and proper communication. It’s important to first know what needs to be communicated before looking for comparisons.

The audience needs to understand the metaphor and be able to identify with it. Looking at problems in different ways using metaphorical comparisons leads to new insights and better understanding.

Generally, people like to consider a situation in metaphorical thinking and will stimulate each other during this process. That way, Metaphorical Thinking can lead to good, useful ideas, loyalty and cooperation.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? How do you apply the Metaphorical Thinking in your project or organization? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions? What are your success factors for getting new insights?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Carreira, S. (2001). Where there’s a model, there’s a metaphor: Metaphorical thinking in students’ understanding of a mathematical model. Mathematical thinking and learning, 3(4), 261-287.
  2. Casasanto, D. (2014). Development of metaphorical thinking: The role of language. Language and the creative mind, 3-18.
  3. Horne, T., Wootton, S. (2010). Strategic Thinking: A Nine Step Approach to Strategy and Leadership for Managers and Marketers. Kogan Page Ltd.
  4. Ortony, A. (1993). Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Silver, H.F. (2007). The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
  6. Wallace, G. (2022). Creativity Course by a Creativity Coach. Retrieved 02/15/2024 from Udemy.

How to cite this article:
Mulder, P. (2017). Metaphorical Thinking. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 06/08/2017 | Last update: 02/15/2024

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


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