Several versions of the truth: How disputes arise and what to do about it.

There are many versions of the story about the Blind Men and the Elephant including a poem The Blind Man And The Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe.

Original illustration by Bogdana Rybiantseva


In each version, a number of blind men are taken to an elephant and invited to examine and describe it. The story teaches us about tunnel vision, bias, and the inability of an individual to know everything about a complex problem.

The man who stands at the elephant’s ears declares, “An elephant is like a fan”. The man who stands at its tusks says, “No!, it is like a spear”.  The man who stands at its tail claims they are both wrong and that “an elephant is like a rope”.  The man feeling the trunk describes the elephant to be like a snake and the final man describes the flank to be like a wall.  In most versions of the tale, the men argue and come to blows on the matter, each believing that they know the truth and the others are attempting to deceive them.

Of course, each of them is correct about what they observed and none of the blind men are guilty of fraud, dishonesty, or misinformation. However, they are also all wrong about the elephant. To have reached a full and correct description, they would have needed to collaborate by sharing information and listening to one another and jointly evaluating what they collectively knew.

In my mediation work, I find that exploring the different perspectives of the warring parties opens up a space in which a mutually agreeable solution can be found.  When I ask the two parties to describe the problem, I usually hear very different answers.  It’s often the same information but presented very differently.

People’s description of the problem massively depends on the perspective from which it is viewed or experienced just like the description of the elephant. Without a shared understanding of the whole problem and its impact on others, there is no opportunity to find a solution.  As an impartial facilitator, I can usually identify the common ground.

If we can’t agree on what the problem is, or can only describe a part of the problem, how can we possibly expect to agree on what a good solution looks like? A shared description of the whole problem is the first step to be taken in facilitating a successful mediation.

If I can help you to describe your perspective on a situation to a colleague, client, or associate, in the hope of solving your dispute or preventing a dispute, please drop me a line and I will be happy to chat about what I can do to support you to find a mutually acceptable way forward.