All of us have our own worldviews through which we see, react, and think about everything that happens around us. And the thing about world views is that one, they’re often very personal and second, they’re never “complete.” You might have formed your mind on one thing but can’t possibly have an opinion on all things in the world.
And so we inevitably run into conflicts when we try to explain things with our worldview to people with their own worldviews.
Blind men and the elephant is an ancient parable found in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist texts which discusses our limits of perception and how limited knowledge or context can be harmful.
The parable goes like this:
“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said the elephant is a pillar like a tree trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”
The blind men describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions of the story, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows.
The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.
This parable can be applied to numerous situations in relationships, politics and conflict resolution. Because it’s very easy to sit and comment on something having only a narrow view from which you are seeing it, when someone with a different narrow view comes and tries to prove their point, we get nothing but the same parable going on over and over again. The only difference is that we are not actually blind but are being intentionally blind.
This is why we have problems communicating with people when they don’t have the necessary background knowledge to understand what we’re talking about. This is a cognitive bias in us called the curse of knowledge. And the thing about this curse of knowledge is that everyone thinks that only they have this curse.
To form an opinion is to actually have felt the entire elephant and know it for what it really is. If only more people knew how much effort it takes to form an opinion on something, we might not have so many opinion clashes.
“I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do” - Charlie Munger
That means that he only forms an opinion when he has felt the entire elephant and when someone comes and tries to challenge his opinion, he knows which limited part of the elephant the other person has felt and what they’re talking about.
It’s easy to blame people for acting the way they do without actually knowing the environment or history or their thought process about something. We don’t know their struggles or insecurities, but we are quick to assume someone’s entire life based on how they acted in one isolated example.
One of the greatest self-help books of all time, the Seven habits of highly effective people, has a rule that says, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”
We might not be able to feel the entire elephant all by ourselves, but the people feeling different parts can help us understand a more complete picture. So before trying to make them understand your point, we would be much better off if we try to first seek to understand and then to be understood.