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Mediators, Can We Shift Perspectives on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” Story?

Susan M. Yates, August 11th, 2017

I have a problem with a story that we in the conflict resolution field use and I’m hoping we can find a replacement for it. It’s the story about people who are blind encountering an elephant. It’s a metaphor and it’s used to make a point about differing perspectives, but from my perspective it sends a negative message about people who are blind.

If you don’t know the story, the idea is that several people who are blind encounter an elephant and because they each touch a different part of the elephant, they perceive it differently. Someone touches the tail and says an elephant is a rope, someone else touches the trunk and says it is a snake, etc. You get the idea. Only a sighted person – who can see the whole – understands that it is an elephant.

My problem with this story is that it defines people who are visually impaired as inherently limited and lacking in capability.They can only perceive part of the elephant. It presents the sighted person as capable, able to see the whole elephant and superior to the people who are blind. Would we use any other group as a stand-in for lack of ability? I can’t imagine what group that would be.

Some may say I am taking this metaphor too seriously or that I am asking for a world that is too politically correct. But as mediators, we are acutely aware of the meaning behind the words and metaphors we use. If I were sitting next to someone who was visually impaired when this story was used, I would be really uncomfortable, whether or not the story happened to bother that individual.

In our field, this story has become a well-worn trope used to make a point. It may even be considered part of our field’s lore; maybe not as well-known as the orange story, but familiar to many. In fact it was hearing an experienced mediator use this story recently that prompted me to write this post. Well-worn or not, I suggest that we as a mediation community stop using this story. Let’s apply our creativity and experiences to find another way to share this important point about differing perspectives.

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9 Responses to “Mediators, Can We Shift Perspectives on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” Story?”

  1. Judy Gignac says:

    Although I understand where the author of this piece is coming from I would like to say that, as an arbitrator/mediator I have never found a reason to use this story, or even the ‘orange’ story. I listen to the parties, ask my questions, decide if mediation is potentially possible and offer that alternative. I then let the parties design their agreement with, perhaps, some language clarification advice. Why would I need to use either an elephant or an orange in the discussion?

  2. Ah, different approaches by different mediators! That is part of what makes this field so wonderful.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that we ALL use this story.

  3. Kent Lawrence says:

    Ah…rare disagreement Susan. Give me a break UNLESS it is being said in front of a blind person, what is the problem. Too many important things to worry about.

  4. Sarah Flores says:

    Not necessarily a story but, you could use the metaphor that everyone has a piece of the puzzle and you cant really see the picture unless you work together.

    “It’s always the small pieces that make the big picture.”

    A young Prince managed to slip away from his mother’s protection and found himself for the first time out of doors at night-time. Though he had been told all sorts of terrifying things about the night to keep him from straying – how different and dangerous it was – his curiosity had eventually won over his fear and he suddenly found himself lost and frightened in the dark.
    All the worst stories came vividly to his mind, how the sun had abandoned the earth and how another magical thing appeared to wreak its witchcraft on anyone foolish enough to be out after dusk.
    He remembered the dreadful name of this awful thing and, when he found himself beside an old man in the half-light around him, he asked in trepidation which was the ‘Moon’.
    The old man was long inured to the stupidity of people’s questions and, taking a liking to the boy, silently stretched out his arm and pointed towards the source of weak light in the sky.
    The Prince looked carefully as the outstretched arm right to the end of the pointing finger, thanked the old man respectfully and realised that he had been told stories all along.
    Why, the moon was but the bony gesture of an old man’s finger!

  6. Elizabeth Kent says:

    Recently I used this metaphor in a mediation and felt uncomfortable after using it. I told myself it would be the last time I’d use it and that I’d need to find a new way to describe situations like this. It’s funny–I forgot the part about the person with sight being the one who puts it all together and just focused on the way we all see the same situation in different ways. But even that part left me rethinking how I express my thoughts.

    It’s uncanny that you must have been writing this piece around the same time I was thinking about it.

  7. Dave Wakely says:

    I don’t use this story because it casts the parties in conflict as unable to see a solution. I would rather tell a story where an outside party added something and then the parties figured it out by themselves. Luckily William Ury has just the story:

    Ury starts with the story of three brothers who were willed 17 camels. The first brother was given half the camels, the second brother was given one third the camels and the third brother was given one ninth of the camels. The trouble being 17 doesn’t divide by any of those numbers. the brothers go to see an old wise lady who, unable to solve the problem offers them her camel. The brothers, now with 18 camels, then are able to divide the camels into one half(9), into a third (6) and into a ninth (2) leaving them with an extra camel that the brothers return to the wise old woman.

    My name links to my blog post on the story and includes the video from the TED talk.

    Also, be aware that just because no one in the mediation is blind it does not mean that none of the parties would be offended. I work with a number of public sector unions that are rather passionate about human rights and a story like the blind elephant story would not go over well.

  8. Kent Lawrence says:

    …and the William Ury TED talk through Mr. Wakely’s Blog (where he got the camel story) is a really good one, and easily accessed from it. I would recommend taking the time to view it.

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