Long ago and far away, a king summoned several blind men and gave each the same assignment: to describe what an elephant is like. Before they could do so, each had to learn for themselves what an elephant was. Because they were blind, they could not simply look on the creature and describe it. Instead, they had to feel for themselves.
And so, each blind man was brought, one by one, to the same elephant. And each experienced for themselves the physical attributes of that elephant. Afterwards, the blind men returned to share their findings in the presence of the other blind men and the king.
“An elephant is like a fan”, reported the first blind man, who had felt the elephant’s ear.
“No, an elephant is like a column”, said the man who explored the elephant’s leg.
The others heatedly disagreed with the both of the former men: “An elephant is like a rope”, “An elephant is like a wall”, “An elephant is like a branch”, proclaimed the blind men who had felt the tail, belly and trunk.
Because of their conflicting reports, a heated argument arose between the men. Each was convinced that they knew what an elephant was. After all, each had experienced it for themselves. Clearly, everyone else was wrong.
Eventually, the king interrupted their debate and taught the men that each had provided an accurate description of a part of an elephant. But what each had experienced was only a portion of what an elephant was.
All of them were right. But, those who disputed the claims of the other blind men were also wrong.
The truth was not either/or. It was both/and. An elephant was larger and more complex than any of them knew, and their could better understand what an elephant was by combining and considering all their experiences.
As a couple therapist, I have the opportunity to share the sacred space that is a therapy room with couples trying to wade through and work through disconnection, conflict, confusion and hurt. At times they will bring up disagreements in which both are convinced that they are correct and their partner is wrong. In these instances, the question often comes to my mind, “What part of the elephant is this person touching?”
I have found that I generally can see a few parts of the figurative elephant that both clients are blind to. I am also aware that they are both privy to parts of the elephant that I am never exposed to in our 50-minute sessions. And despite both members of that couple being ever-present players in their relationships, they each have parts of the elephant that they are likewise exclusively aware of or blinded to. And this blindness can often lead to disagreements and confusion.
Interestingly, the solution to the presenting problem is often far less significant than the ability of partners to hear, consider and be accepting of the other’s experience. If someone can ask why they think an elephant is like a fan, rather than insisting more loudly that it is like a column, then it becomes easier to realize that both of their experiences can be true, valid, meaningful and complementary.
At times, it is important to be aware that there may be a bigger elephant in the room than the one we see. This can be true in relationships, as well as in controversial conversations about politics or social issues. There may be a need to simply step back and ask: “What part of the elephant is this other person touching? And am I willing to listen and allow them to help me see and feel it too?” In doing so, it magnifies the possibility that both individuals will come away with a better ability to connect with and understand each other, and with a greater understanding of truth.