An interesting concept in the realm of conflict communication studies concerns the integral necessity of perspective. More to the point, objectivity is the key asset that leaders seek in order to achieve fairness. Objectivity is an abstract term and evasive by nature; even serious academics doubt that true objectivity is attainable. Yet, if objectivity is the goal then perspective is a critical component since perspective is the means by which we broaden our horizons. Conflicts often occur because of closed mindedness or stubbornness and generally those two attitudes are one and the same.
It is human nature to disagree since human beings cognitively process information differently. However, the judge of our character is not how we interpret information but how we react to opinions which differ from our own. More importantly, the greatest gauge of one’s character, intelligence, and leadership skills is one’s ability to listen to another’s point of view and, if applicable, to alter previously held beliefs to fit new and better ideas.
In the case of perception lessons, there is no better parable than that of “The Blind Men Describing the Elephant.” The story originates from India many centuries ago and was widely popularized in the Western world via a poem written by American John Godfrey Saxe in the 19th Century. There are many different versions of the story. For the purposes of the article I will tell an abridged version:
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Six blind men had often heard about elephants but, being blind, had never actually seen one. Curious about the creature, the six blind men decided to visit the palace grounds where the Rajah (King) kept many elephants. A friend of the six blind men met them at the palace and led them to an elephant that was standing in the courtyard. The six blind men touched the elephant with their hands, hoping to mentally envision what the animal looked like based on what it felt like.
The first blind man touched the side of the elephant. “How big and smooth,” the first blind man declared. “An elephant is like a wall.”
The second blind man touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.”
The third blind man touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear!”
The fourth blind man touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall!” An elephant is like a tree!”
The fifth blind man touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.”
The sixth blind man touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”
After each blind man had formed an opinion about the elephant, their friend led them into a nearby garden. The six blind men were tired due to their journey and the hot day. The six blind men sat down in the shade of a tree and their friend brought them lunch. As they relaxed, the six blind men started to discuss the elephant. Yet none of the blind men could agree on what the elephant was like and each accused the others of being wrong.
The shouting in the courtyard soon awakened the Rajah who looked out of his palace window and saw the six quarreling blind men. “Stop!” he called down to them, commanding their attention. “The elephant is a big animal,” the Rajah explained. “Each man touched only one part. Therefore, each of you is partly right and all of you are wrong. In order to understand what an elephant is like you must put all the parts together.”
The six blind men listened to the wise Rajah. Calmly, they went back to their lunch and discussed each other’s experience of the elephant. By the end of the day all of the blind men had an accurate idea of what an elephant looked like.
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This story is a favorite in philosophy classes because it forces students to think deeply about its varied meanings. There is a religious undertone to the story with many arguing that it was meant to serve as a parable about human relationships with God, or a commentary on the relationship between those who are in positions of power and those who are not. Although these viewpoints are both warranted, this story has a much wider range than only the political and theological arenas. More than anything else, this story is a commentary on the importance of being open-minded. It is, at its core, a very basic lesson with positive long-term benefits for those who take it to heart.
“The Blind Men Describing the Elephant” is a delightful story that people of all ages, creeds, and colors can enjoy. The story is very entertaining and its deep meaning about how life is multi-faceted and should be acknowledged as such makes it a great example of educational literature. In short, it’s a wonderful learning opportunity that is especially effective for children to read and then discuss.
Author’s note: This article is a condensed version of one I published in “NY Parenting” in September 2012. The full original version can be found here: http://www.nyparenting.com/stories/2012/9/fp_perception_2012_09.html