Drawing a picture of “what it’s like at work” gives people an opportunity to express negative emotions with humor. When I facilitate this kind of exercise, everyone shares their “metaphor map” in a democratic process. Some are positive but many people need to process stress, anxiety and frustration. It is humor that makes this work. When we can laugh at ourselves and each other, we find that negative perceptions ARE surmountable if we can talk about them. Emotions that cannot be discussed cannot be healed. This map was drawn by a guy who was new to a senior management position at a “troubled” facility of a national organization. He explained, “This is what remains of me. This job has ripped out my heart and guts. The people here are chewing away my legs and feet. I hold up my arm for help and the guys above me snap it off.” This drawing was not so much a message to the group – although it made a strong impact – but it was a catharsis for the man who drew it. Many people say the Metaphor Map process is cathartic. He got lots of attention, genuine laughter at this graphics, and validation. My guess is that this picture caused him to ask himself, “Am I really going to let this happen to me?” After the catharsis of admitting he hit bottom and the validation that everyone could relate to the feeling, there was no where to go but up.
I facilitated dialogue between conservative and gay Christians in the same denomination off and on for two years. It got ugly at times. Getting people to come is the hardest part. (same problem with racial issues) This group was truly inclusive and most of the people there were experts on Bible scripture, citing Chapter and verse to support their points. Previously intellectual sparring kept the group from learning about the other’s personal faith journeys – their stories. It is impossible to demonize someone once you know their story. The man who drew this map was from the conservative side and yet he spoke for everyone. Even if they all could quote scripture, and acted as if they knew what God said, the Circle above representing God gets to the truth of the matter. “I don’t remember talking to either one of them lately.” Everyone needs to get off their soapbox in order to achieve collaboration and understanding.
The woman who drew this was trim, coiffed and perfectly dressed. Her blond flip hair-do and “had-to-have-been-a-cheerleader” demeanor did not make ANY sense when she present this map to the group. She said, “This is me. And I do everything I can to protect my people from all the problems and interference that come down from HQ and senior leadership. And I’ve got plenty of tools for my people, but they don’t seem to step up to the job. They are always asking me what to do. I don’t understand.” People looked left and right, thinking, “you don’t understand?” She didn’t. I asked, “Would you be interested in hearing what some of the other characters in your drawing might say?”….I pointed to the chick bottom left, “Can anyone say how they’d feel if they were this character?” I got several answers, that told the same story, “I can’t do anything because she’s always hovering over me. So why try.” She turned in shock. Another said, “She’s standing on the tool box so I have to go through her for everything.” I pointed out. “To me, this eagle character looks kind of mean. I don’t see you that way.” Every now and then a drawing really packs a punch. This one had a radical impact on the manager who drew it. Her positive intent was very strong: to protect and help. When she saw how much damage her current strategy was doing, her attitude changed – no defensiveness, no bad feelings, just a new opportunity to do it better.
Every so often, senior leadership decides that a new system will solve all our problems. They know there will be a “period of adjustment” but this drawing communicates the emotional costs in a way that is hard to ignore. The minute this metaphor map appeared a room full of fifty people started laughing in recognition. The directors and all his direct reports pedal a monster bicycle of integration that leaves dead bodies behind and people running for their lives ahead. The emotion in this picture is the primary message.