HYCS #31 – Using Analogies to Sidestep Fear

HYCS #31 – Using Analogies to Sidestep Fear

What do you do when you’ve got a client who can’t stop complaining? Compare her situation to something truly terrifying.

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Assignment Time: Analogies are like mini-vacations. They give energy.

GBR_A1GP-racecarHave you ever strapped yourself into a heavy, powerful racecar and felt the tires break loose and scream on a turn you’ve hit at 150mph? Have you felt the way the g-force seems to be doing everything to throw you out of the car? What about the terror that courses through you when you just miss the wall and certain death as you blur past another driver?

No? Me neither. But I understand there is one choice a racecar driver has to make to stay in the race. Being the most skillful driver, having the best car, the best pit crew, the most generous sponsors will come to nothing unless the driver gets this one thing right.

The successful driver controls her eyes, because that’s where her car will go. If she looks at the wall, she’ll hit it. If she casts a worried glance at the car next to her, she’ll plow into it. If she looks through the gap between the wall and the car in front of her, she’ll soon be through that gap. In racecar driving, nothing is more important than looking at the goal rather than the obstacle. Just like life. Just like your client’s situation.

The more dangerous the pursuit, the more it matters that you keep your eyes on the goal, not the obstacle. Take hang-gliding, another sport where the contraption you’re in follows your gaze. To look at the scary rock to your left is to head straight toward it. Looking at your destination is what gets you there. Leadership is all about that unwavering gaze.


Using Analogies

An analogy uses one situation or object to point out something about another. It’s a comparison that sheds light on a single, salient characteristic of your client’s situation or actions.
1. You’ve got to live it. If the analogy hasn’t touched you, it won’t be as powerful. You can’t pass on an “aha” moment you haven’t had. So, even though I haven’t been in a racecar, I can feel how desperately much I’d want to look at what could kill me rather than where I want my car to go. I can grasp that the race is inside me.

When I deliver the analogy, my client will feel what I feel.

2. It has to fit the client’s need and situation. Just because you like talking about racecars doesn’t mean the analogy fits your client’s situation. Look for the analogy, however humble, that fits. “That reminds me of the blind men and the elephant, where everybody was touching a different part of the elephant, so they described the part they were touching as though it were the whole.”

3. Ask your client to apply the analogy to their situation: “If your goal is a successful program by 2015, where do you need to put your eyes?” “What are the obstacles that might distract you?” “How will you stay focused?” These questions make it easy to move to planning with an engaged, thoughtful client. BONUS: Any return to negativity can be quickly dealt with: “Is that the goal or the obstacle?”

4. “If…” The word “if” is a powerful consulting word, and it’s especially useful with analogies. You’re comparing someone else’s reality with your client’s reality. You’ve got to invite them to paint themselves into that story, and paint themselves out of the tale of woe they’ve been telling you. The word “if” acts like a clutch for the imagination, making it easy to switch gears without that awful grinding sound.


1. To ease yourself into using analogies, start using the word “if.” “If you did know…” is one of my favorite sentence stems. I like to use it right after a client says “I don’t know.” The mind stuck in the obstacle doesn’t know; the imagination knows the way forward.

2. Listen up: Start noticing analogies that work for you.

3. Start practicing, perhaps with colleagues or friends. You may not excel at this right away, but you’ll get better each time you use an analogy. Make a coffee or lunch date with a colleague and crack yourselves up with crazy analogies. The whackier the analogy, the more fun. “A ____ project is like a _______ because it _____.”

This can be a great thing for consulting groups to do together: What analogy that might have turned this client around?