Visual Associations

A picture is worth a thousand words − in leadership, training, and facilitation, this saying can be interpreted as: „A picture can trigger and/or express more than a thousand thoughts at once.“ Gut feelings, mental and emotional tendencies, and intuitions are often difficult to put into words because they are experienced on a preconscious level and are usually very complex. Spontaneously or intuitively chosen images can therefore serve as a helpful intermediary step to bring complex feelings from the preconscious to the verbal level and connect them with new elements.

Application of Image Associations

Expressing thoughts and feelings through images or other creative forms is known as an analog method. Examples of analog methods include LEGO® Serious Play®, Maja Storch’s „Solution Focused Imagery,“ Milton Erickson’s metaphorical interventions, and Gunther Schmidt’s hypnosystemic methods. The core idea is always the same: a phenomenon from the real world is directly or indirectly compared to another construct (e.g., a photo, a story, a Lego model). By discussing this construct, which symbolizes the original topic, parallels can be drawn. The selection of the symbol can be done in various ways, such as:

  • Choose a photo from a prepared collection (either physical photos on a table or from an online collection).
  • If the topic were an animal (a plant, a landscape, a picture), what could it be?
    Build the topic using Lego (or other materials).
  • Spontaneously draw a picture that expresses your topic.
  • Create a picture together (e.g., for the team, the vision, etc.).
  • Bring back a symbol from a walk (or several, such as one for the past, one for the present, and one for the future).

This method triggers several helpful processes. Here are three advantages:

Advantage 1 – Makes Discussion Possible

It is challenging to mindfully perceive, reflect on, and articulate complex emotions or diffuse thoughts. The phrase „I’m at a loss for words“ captures this well. Instead, it is easier to spontaneously select a picture or symbol, let it resonate, and then talk about the image and the associated thoughts and feelings.

Advantage 2 – Eases Emotional Burden

Discussing the symbol often alleviates emotional burden because the conversation focuses on the symbol (e.g., a bent flower stem or two rams clashing horns) rather than the original issue (e.g., a breach of trust or a conflict). This avoids evoking all the emotions tied to the experience while activating creative networks that can generate new thoughts on the topic. Even non-burdensome topics become easier to discuss, especially in contexts where talking about feelings is uncommon. Talking about a plant needing care is often easier than discussing vulnerability and the need for protection and security.

Advantage 3 – Facilitates Change

Some topics seem stuck. The original issue has been discussed so many times that no new ideas emerge, and the same thought patterns are activated repeatedly. Using images and symbols can „liquefy“ this mental stagnation (problem patterns) and introduce new elements. Questions like „What does the plant need?“ (water, light, fertilizer) and then „What would be the equivalent of water, light, and fertilizer for our team?“ bring new solutions into the thought process. Even when topics seem stuck, „winter tires,“ „snow chains,“ or a „tow truck“ might help.

Linguistic Tips for Guiding the Method

Analog methods invite expansive thinking. Therefore, it is often useful to use broad and open language.


„Choose a picture from the collection that spontaneously resonates with you regarding topic XY.“

„Some images might seem less fitting at first glance, while others might feel more appropriate.“

„Often, it is a spontaneous gut feeling, a smile, or an inner nod that helps with the selection.“


„What do you spontaneously associate with the picture? What thoughts or feelings does it evoke?“

„What comes to mind when you look at this picture?“

„What parallels or connections can you draw between the picture and the topic? Or do you notice more differences?

Solution Orientation:

„What helpful, empowering, or flexible elements can you see in this picture?“

„What helpful, empowering, or flexible elements could you add to this picture?“

„Which of these elements could provide useful impulses beyond the picture?“

„How could these impulses possibly be utilized?“

Additional Helpful Language Patterns to Stimulate Thinking Without Specific Content:

„…and what else?“
„…or maybe something entirely different?“
„…what might need more? …and what might need less?“


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