The Elephant and the Blind Men

This is one of my favorite stories. Don't remember where I got it, but I have used this one for years in my practice. This story has tremendous application to understanding and improving communication in organizations.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

One day, three blind men were walking along a road, begging for alms. They had been blind from birth. That day, they encountered for the first time an elephant. With great excitement, they approached the large beast. The first blind man touched the tip of the elephant's tail and said, "Ah, an elephant is a small fuzzy animal." The second man touched the broad rough side of the elephant and said. "An elephant is a big, flat animal, like a wall." Holding the elephant's trunk, the third said, "An elephant is long and round, like a big snake."

Later that day, while they sat under a large tree, discussing the marvels of the day, the talk returned to the encounter with the elephant. Each recounted his contact with the beast and described what he thought an elephant was like. As each blind man heard the other's description, they became confused, then agitated, and finally enraged. Arguing violently, they yelled at each other, "You are wrong, my brother. Completely wrong."

Is there a familiar ring to this? Do we OD practitioners ever run into such dysfunctional communication behavior in client organizations?

How do we help our clients to communicate more effectively, particularly in situations where there is strong disagreement and distinctly differing points of view?

Here are several ideas.

- Get all the needed folks in the room so that the total system is represented

- Ask questions of fact. Gathering up the pieces of information.

- Ask "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"

- Seek root causes

- Encourage effective communication behavior

- Ask each party to paraphrase what the others are saying

- Seek every person's share of the wisdom so that a sustainable outcome can be reached

- Seek areas of agreement


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