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.
“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 trunkof 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. Every one 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. They ceased fighting. They left amicably discussing their ideas of the elephant.
The moral of the story is this — different people can view the same situation in completely different ways and yet be absolutely right.
There is a grain of truth in what everyone believes. Sometimes the truth is easy to perceive, and at other times not so much.
In this post, we take a closer look at what it means to think different. Why do we think differently? What happens in the brain? How can we embrace different thinking with an open mind?
We have learned from Gestalt theory that the same situation can be viewed from many angles. Perception arises from what we pay attention to – while some people notice objects in the foreground, others may be drawn to what’s in the background. People’s thinking also differs based on various factors – their identity, beliefs, values – just to name a few.
Neuroscience studies prove the moral of the above tale. No two brains are alike. We each perceive reality in a different way. We see the world not as it is, but as we are.
The neuronal connections (mental maps) that we form for any concept — a book, a car or an elephant — are based on millions of bits of data accumulated by our brain over a lifetime.
Some data points may be objective and match those of others. Such as “books are made of paper”, “cars drive on the road” and “elephants are the largest land mammals”. Other data points may be unique to your subjective experience of life. Such as books reminding you of the countless (delightful) visits to the local library, cars reminding you of long (and packed) family trips to the beach and elephants reminding you of your visit to see the amazing Asian elephants at the Smithsonian Zoo.
The value of different thinking
Unless you wish to live on a planet populated by your clones, you must learn to be open to others’ viewpoints. Being open-minded is a survival tactic. It allows us to coexist in harmony with people of different thinking. It also allows us to be more compassionate with others and ourselves.
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.― Isaac Asimov
We often find ourselves in situations where a collision of viewpoints seems inevitable. On any given day, you may face conflicts on various fronts — your boss may refuse to agree with you, your customer may be disrespectful or your team may feel disjointed.
When dealing with conflict, instead of arguing like the blind men, you could be open minded. When in doubt you could admit, “Your thinking is different than mine. Maybe you are right. Maybe you have your reasons. Help me understand.”
But it’s easier said than done. Why is it so hard to accept different thinking?
Do you remember the kids’ puzzles that involved comparing two pictures? The trick to solving those puzzles was to focus on patterns. Our brains are constantly engaged in pattern recognition and problem identification. We naturally compare and contrast mental pictures to draw conclusions. This is how our brains build new neuronal connections. This how we survive, learn and grow.
However, there is a downside to this process. It can lead to an unyielding attachment to our point of view. A dogged determination to see things our way can derail any opportunity to engage in a productive dialogue.
What is happening in the brain when we experience different thinking?
Thinking is a complex neuronal process, it is governed by two important regions in the brain (among others):
- the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) whose functions include error detection, conflict monitoring and evaluating different options
- the Amygdala, a part of the limbic system which governs emotions
When faced with
If someone is rigid in their thinking, the Amygdala can trigger a strong emotional response (suppressing logical thinking). On the other hand, if someone is flexible in their thinking, their ACC can allow salient points from other perspectives to adjust their views.
How can we embrace different thinking?
Regardless of someone’s level of cognitive flexibility, it is possible to shift any conversation from conflict to a
Shifting a conversation out of the details calms the limbic system and suppresses emotional arousal. Switching the conversation to a common vision, activates the Pre-frontal Cortex, the executive reasoning center of the brain. It enables the brain to dispassionately process other viewpoints, even understand different perspectives. The key to accepting different thinking maybe through brain-based positive communications.
The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.— George Bernard Shaw
Here are some techniques you can try to engage in a more meaningful conversation especially when views differ:
- Clarify your intent. What exactly are you trying to achieve? What is your vision for the outcome of the conversation?
- Use open-ended powerful questions to explore the thinking
- Communicate your views through a metaphor or analogy. Metaphors and analogies transcend individual mental maps. They are universally understood and appreciated. I have often used this story of the elephant and the blind men to help stakeholders discuss different aspects of an organizational change.
- Use a technique like Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based approach to uncover the best in any situation
- Try a lateral thinking technique like De Bono’s six thinking hats to simulate different points of view
- Use the other participants’ modality in your questions and explanations. 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”.
Let’s apply these techniques to the situations mentioned before…
Your boss disagrees with you:
- What might be the reason for the disparity between your point of view and your boss’?
- Before you consider convincing your boss, put yourself in her shoes and consider the case from all angles.
- What might some of her concerns be?
- 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 is the customer’s concern?
- What is most important to him?
- Can you isolate the message from the emotional charge of the conversation?
- Who is the best person to help this customer?
- How can you manage your emotions (your limbic overload), while helping your client?
Your team feels disjointed:
- What signs point to a lack of cohesion in your team?
- What does working on a cohesive team look like, sound like, feel like? What’s a metaphor for a cohesive team that resonates with you?
- How important is to address this disjointedness right now?
- Don the De Bono Red Hat. Put yourself in the in the shoes of a team member. What might he be feeling? What might be his concern?
- What ideas do you have for improving team cohesiveness?
These are just a few ways you can approach different thinking at work.
Misunderstandings are prevalent 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, human beings, have over 50,000 thoughts every day. Is it any wonder that our thinking can get in the way of listening and understanding?
Coaching can help you improve your communication skills by improving your thinking. You can learn to reconcile differing viewpoints and communicate with greater confidence. Coaching also can help leaders formulate effective ways to resolve conflict, resulting in a healthier and more productive team environment.
The art of communication is the language of leadership.— James Humes
What are some common misunderstandings you encounter in your daily life? How do address these conflicts? What would you like to learn about communicating with strength and confidence?