Metaphors Are BridgesThey can connect you to the other side—or collapse disastrously
A deputy minister of Laos once told me, “we are a yam between two boulders.” He was trying to make me understand his small country’s precarious location between Thailand and Vietnam, and as soon as he put it that way, I did understand, vividly.
Almost everyone uses metaphors in negotiations. To ward off a price increase from the contractor who’s upgrading your kitchen, you might protest that you are already paying an “arm and a leg.” In seeking additional resources for your harried staff, you might tell your boss that you are “drowning” in work. Just as an effective metaphor stimulates the imagination in poetry, so can it be a boon in negotiations.
Consider the high-stakes example of the 1986 Reykjavik summit, the first encounter between the Reagan administration and the Gorbachev team that had recently come to power in the USSR. At first, the two sides were wary of each other. But then at an early meeting with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the Soviet deputy minister of defense, remarked that he was “one of the last of the Mohicans,” meaning that he was among the few Soviet World War II generals still in service.
When Shultz asked him where he had learned the expression, Akhromeyev replied that as a boy he had loved the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. The answer had an immediate impact on Schultz. As he writes in his memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, it led him to conclude that Akhromeyev was more open than previous Soviet negotiators, that he had a sense of history and an awareness of the American way, and that he was therefore a person the Americans could deal with.
But if Akhromeyev was wise to use a metaphor from Shultz’s own culture, less skilled negotiators sometimes discover the unintended results of using metaphors the other side doesn’t understand. Telling Nigerians in a negotiation that your company is ready to “step up to the plate” may promote confusion rather than reassurance. In one negotiation with a Saudi Arabian agency, an American executive proudly proclaimed that he represented a “blue-chip company.” When this drew quizzical looks, he launched into a long explanation of the term “blue chip” and its origins in gaming casinos, only to be told that Saudi Arabia does not allow gambling.
A metaphor can backfire even when both sides come from the same culture, as the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—scientific director for the Manhattan Project—learned in a crucial negotiation with President Harry S. Truman. As the journalist Kai Bird and the Tufts historian Martin Sherwin recount in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer visited the White House in October 1945. He was alarmed at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, and hoped to persuade Truman to accept a regime of international cooperation that could prevent a nuclear arms race. Truman resisted. In desperation, Oppenheimer blurted out, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The metaphor alienated Truman, who, using a metaphor of his own, made it known afterward that he wanted nothing more to do with “that cry-baby scientist.” He would later say, “Blood on his hands! Dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have on mine.”
These stories suggest a few principles. First, metaphors can either be tired clichés or fresh images that capture the imagination. Fifteen years after our talk, I still remember the Lao minister’s comment on yams and geopolitics. Second, beware of metaphors so tied to your own culture that your counterparts may not understand them. With metaphors, as with any other expressions, you should constantly ask yourself, How can I be misunderstood? Third, put yourself in the place of the person with whom you are trying to connect. Had Oppenheimer done that, he might not have repelled Truman.
Above all, don’t underestimate the power of the figure of speech. In the film Il Postino, the central character, a mailman, asks the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda how he too can become a poet. Neruda answers, “Search for the metaphor.” Persuasive negotiators should do no less.
JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and a former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. He is the author of Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich and Powerful People, and, most recently, Seven Secrets for Negotiating with Government (AMACOM).