A Tale Of Different Thinking – The Elephant and The Blind Men

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village in India. One day the villagers told them, “There is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant was, so they decided that even though they wouldn’t be able to see it, that would go and feel it anyway. They all went to visit the elephant. Every one of them touched the elephant.

different thinking

“The elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like the thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

Then all six of them began to argue about the elephant. Everyone of them insisted that he was right. They began to get agitated.

A wise man who was passing by saw what was happening.

He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?”

All six chimed in, “We cannot agree on what the elephant is like.” Each of them told the wise man his idea of the elephant.

The wise man calmly explained, “You are all right. Every one of you sees it differently because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. In reality, the elephant has all the features that you felt.”

Realization dawned upon the six men. There ceased fighting. They left amicably discussing their ideas of the elephant.

The moral of the story is that everyone has their own viewpoint. There is a grain of truth in what each and everyone believes.

Sometimes the truth is easy to perceive, and at other times not so much. Even though we are rational beings, our perspective and judgement are often clouded by emotions and feelings.

So, instead of arguing like the blind men, we could be open minded. When in doubt we could admit, “Maybe you are right. Maybe have your reasons. Help me understand.”

Unless you want to live on a planet populated by your clones, it helps to be more open minded. Being open minded allows us to live in harmony with people of different thinking. This also allows us to be compassionate towards others and more accepting of ourselves.

We must surrender being right in order to find out what’s right. People are open to those who are open to them.

— John C. Maxwell, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions

It is easy to get caught up in the drama that surrounds daily life. Perhaps a boss refuses to see your viewpoint, maybe your customer is disrespectful or maybe your team is disjointed. Whatever might be the challenge you face on any given day, it helps to acknowledge that we all think differently.

Do you remember the kids’ puzzles that involved comparing two pictures? Our brains are constantly engaged in pattern recognition and problem identification. We naturally compare and contrast mental pictures and draw conclusions. This is how our brains build new neural connections. This how we learn and grow.

However, there is a downside to this perceptual acuity. It inevitably leads to fixating on problems and attachment to our point of view.

The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.

— George Bernard Shaw

Solutions and positive communications are the key to merging different thinking. 

Instead of focusing on problems or drama, steer the conversation towards a common vision and solution. Before you initiate any dialogue, clarify your intent.

What do you know about the parties involved? What exactly you trying to achieve? Are you attached to a specific outcome? Does that outcome benefit others involved?

Actively listen for potential in every conversation. Consider the other person’s viewpoint. When in doubt enquire about their thinking.

As we have learnt from Gestalt perceptions, the same situation can be viewed from many angles. While some may notice an object in the foreground, other may be drawn to the background. People’s thinking differs based on many factors – their identity, beliefs, values – just to name a few.

How do we ensure that we understand another’s viewpoint? These are just a few tools that will add greater clarity to any conversation:

  • Use open ended powerful questions to understand what is really happening
  • Turn to metaphors, convey the challenge through an analogy (for ex. this story of the elephant and the blind men). Metaphors are universally understood and appreciated.
  • Use the other participants modality in your questions and explanations. For ex. visual learners are good at “seeing” things, auditory learners respond to “hearing or talking things through” and kinesthetic learners solve problems by “sensing, grasping or acting out”.

Before you attempt to set things right make sure that you see things right.

— Anonymous

Let’s look at the situations I brought up earlier.

Your boss disagrees with you:

What might be the reason for the disparity between your point of view and your boss’s? Before you consider convincing your boss, put yourself in her shoes and consider the case from all angles. What might be some of her concerns? What questions can you ask to better understand her perspective? Now that you have “seen” it from her viewpoint, how does that alter your own view of the situation?

Your customer is abrupt, maybe even downright rude:

What does disrespect mean to you? What concerns have you heard from your client? Can you isolate the message from the emotional charge of the conversation? What positive feedback can you provide that will help get your client on board?

Your team feels disjointed:

What are the indications that there is a lack of cohesion in your team? What does working on a cohesive team look like, sound like, feel like? How could you pull the key players together and initiate a productive dialogue on improving cohesiveness? What might be holding them back from committing? How can you engage their attention?

These are just a few ways that you can merge different thinking at work.

Misunderstandings are a common issue not just at work, but in any relationship, personal or professional. The reason they occur has little to do with the environment or the phase of the moon and more to do with our thinking. We humans have over 50,000 thoughts every day! Is it any wonder that our thinking can get in the way of our listening and understanding?

The art of communication is the language of leadership.

— James Humes

If you are struggling with communicating with others or articulating your issues, coaching can offer insights that will help you improve your own thinking. Coaching can help you internalize your strengths, identify latent leadership skills and learn to channel them in a number of situations.

What are some common misunderstandings you encounter in your daily life? How do address those challenges? What would you most like to learn about communicating with strength and confidence? What can I, as a coach, do to assist you in that regard?

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