“The blind men and the elephant” - Conflict & Communication Workshop Exercise

In the poem “The blind men and the elephant” six blind men discover for the first time an elephant. Each one of them touches a different part of the animal and hold his perception as the unique truth. They argue and try to impose their own perception to the others without understanding that their perceptions are complementary. It is obvious to the reader that they do not "see" what is wrong in their judgment. They could get a better image of an elephant by accepting that different perceptions do not mean opposition. On the contrary, different perceptions lead to a more colorful and complete understanding of what is.

In business, we face many situations where we do not recognize that the different perceptions of the same problem complement each other. For example, disputes can exist between Financial and Research and development departments. One is willing to spend more time and money on a new project when the other one wants to reduce the expenses. When they come at the negotiating table they see each other as competitors. They do not try to find bridges that could be used to develop a common understanding of their issue and a common solution.



I thought of an exercise that places people in the same situation as the 6 blind men. I would love to receive feedback to improve it. So, please do not hesitate to write a comment. Its aim is to help team or people in conflict to understand that different opinions and perceptions are not a sign of opposition but an indication that each one has a different point of view.

In order to conduct the exercise you will need some specific material such as: piece of paper for each participants, pen, pictures of the same object from different angles (you should have one pictures per group or person), and a blackboard.

Process: 

  • Distribute one picture per team and make sure they cannot see what other team have. The best is to have people in different rooms. 
  • Ask the participants to write down a description of the object using only its features. (Colors, forms, texture…) The name of the object should never be mentioned.  
  • Tell to each group they have the same object on the picture but the other group should not know that they know. (They may be confused at this point because “why hide the pictures if they are the same”) reassure them, it is part of the exercises. 
  • Ask each team to read their description out loud in front of the other groups while the mediator draws it on a blackboard. It should be inconsistent as their pictures are taken from different angles.
  • Ask the groups what is wrong with the drawing. The groups should start to argue about the real content of the picture. Let them argue for a moment. 
  • Then ask them to be more precise about what they see exactly. What is the object’s orientation and so on. 
  • You should let people disagree if they carry on. At the end, ask each group to show their pictures.
  • The groups realize that the pictures are taken from different angles. Emphasize the importance of the different perceptions to build a 3D image of the object. In the end, you only see one dimension of a problem.
  • Ask the groups why they argued so much. What did they believe? What information they thought was shared by everyone?
  • Debrief (a): make a list of lessons learned from the exercise. Make a parallel with the conflict the group is facing. 
  • Redo the exercise with another series of pictures from a different object. This time they should be more careful and try to understand from which angle the pictures of the other one is taken. 
  • Debrief (b): ask the group to explain what they did differently.
  • The findings from debrief (a) and (b) should be written down and distributed to the team. It is important to create a strong memory of the exercise as it reminds team members that they should build a "3D image" in any conflicting situation. 
  • When people communicate well with each other, it is possible that they quickly figure out that the same object was photographed from different angles. Ask them why they where so fast in doing so. How did they communicate ?
This exercise helps people experiment viscerally the poem “The blind men and the elephant” and do more than just showing them that we have communication issues. It makes it real. There is a difference between understanding a concept and experiencing it. I hope you will use this exercise or make your own version to develop "3D perception of issues".

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