Coming Together/Collective wisdom and common ground

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—Wiser together

The ancient parable about six blind men encountering an elephant can teach us several valuable lessons about collective wisdom.

blind men and an elephant

The parable has many versions, but broadly goes as follows:

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. In the case of 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, "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.

In this parable each person accurately described their perceptions but made a mistake in concluding that what they perceived is all there is. A complete and accurate account of an elephant requires that all of the evidence—including the perceptions of each individual blind man—be assembled, integrated and reconciled into a coherent and consistent understanding of reality.

Perceptions are personal. We are often like a blind man examining the elephant. We are each correct within the limited scope of our reference frame, but we are incorrect when a global perspective is adopted. Reality precedes perception and reality exists independent of our perceptions of it; none-the-less, each of us is easily captivated by our own perceptions.

~ ~ ~

This parable reminds us that although we all live in the same world and share a single reality, we often seem to be worlds apart when discussing important issues. What is going on? How can we unleash and  integrate our collective wisdom? How can we find common ground?

We engage reality at various layers of abstraction

Here is a brief introduction to key concepts that can help us find common ground. The diagram above can help you organize, recall, share, and apply these ideas.

  1. Reality exists and we all share in a single objective reality. Reality is at the core of our common ground.
  2. There are several reasons why this fact is difficult for us to grasp and hold onto.
    1. Reality is vast, complex, and dynamic. Each of us directly encounters only a tiny slice of reality. We each experience only a glimpse of our vast universe.
    2. Our direct contact with reality is through our perceptions, which introduce omissions, distortions, and additions.
    3. Although we use words and other symbols to represent reality as we perceive it, these symbols are limited, and they only provide approximate representations of our perceptions.
    4. Because much of what we encounter is ambiguous, it invites us to interpret the information to resolve the ambiguity and provide us the comfort of certainty. Many cognitive biases influence our interpretations.
    5. We love telling and retelling stories. We easily substitute alluring stories for the complexities and difficulties of reality.
    6. Ideologies substitute a simplified belief system for the complexities of reality. We are easily attracted to these easy-to-use explanations.
  3. We can see beyond these illusions and better comprehend reality.
  4. Reality is our common ground. We can each find that common ground by advancing toward the center of the diagram shown above.
  5. Although these ideas are simply stated, they are difficult to fully grasp and put into practice. To better understand these concepts, it will be helpful to complete the course on finding common ground and use these insights every day.
  6. We can find common ground.

When the elephant is represented as six stories, each based on one person’s perspective and one person’s perceptions, reconciliation seems impossible.

The six blind men tell six different stories as they encounter an elephant
~ ~ ~

Fortunately, we can integrate our collective wisdom, gain insights, adopt a broader perspective, attain a deeper understanding, and find common ground. Here are the basic requirements for fostering collective wisdom and avoiding the fracturing the efforts and divergent forces that lead to collective folly.

  1. Begin by insisting on intellectual honesty—accurately describing true beliefs. When we are all being intellectually honest, two heads indeed become better than one.
  2. Expect that each observer accurately reports their observations, especially including the limitations, ambiguities, and apparent contradictions.
  3. Practice deep listening—Maintain an authentic curiosity about what is going on inside the speaker.  Listen carefully to each reported observation. Practice dialogue to fully understand what was and was not observed. Do not debate maters of fact, research them. Seek to trust the accuracy of the observations and the sincerity of the reporters. Be candid about any doubts or skepticism you have.
  4. Suspend certainty—defer judgment to allow a new truth to emerge. Embrace ambiguity. Practice epistemic humility—remain open to learning and revising your worldview. Recognize that every contradiction is an unresolved investigation.
  5. Become omni-considerate[1]—embrace as many viewpoints as possible.
  6. Work to see whole systems that present diverse perspectives.
  7. Welcome all that arises—embrace unexpected participants and allow unplanned events to contribute to the solution.
  8. Unleash creativity—find an environment that invites new ideas.
  9. Practice abductive reasoning—inference to the most likely cause—in the style of Sherlock Holmes.  Create possibilities for integrating each reliable observation into a newly conceived whole that accounts for each observation. Seek congruence.
~ ~ ~

It is not well known that the next day the six blind men met to reconsider their experiences.[2] They followed the basic steps described above and recognized they were each telling six accurate but limited stories about one elephant. Their diverse perspectives and perceptions were successfully integrated into an understanding of one real elephant[3].

The six stories resolve into various perceptions of a single elephant.

Although these principles for fostering collective wisdom are simply stated, they are often difficult to apply. Various characteristics of human nature often impede reaching common ground. These diverging forces include:

  • We love telling and retelling stories. Very often, the best story wins.
  • We are all subject to many cognitive biases that distort our observations, interpretations, and reasoning abilities.
  • People often have diverse motives and goals that are not served by finding common ground. It may be easier to deny various inconvenient truths than it is to accept them.
  • Many people are skillful at using power to suppress dissent and overcome reason.
  • People often have firmly held worldviews that are not aligned with reality. This includes holding supernatural beliefs and maintaining loyalty to an ideology.
  • Because our first-person viewpoints are salient, and our lived experiences are vivid, it is difficult to attain new perspectives. We feel certain[4] and we want to be right.
  • Many people are unskilled in evaluating evidence and reasoning soundly. Many of us do not know how we know.
  • We are more skilled at argumentation—winning and being judged as being right—than we are at seeking new insights by practicing dialogue.
  • Listening to others, assimilating what they say, and trusting them to communicate accurately is difficult.
  • We become comfortable with long-held beliefs. We are comfortable feeling certain of our worldview. This makes it difficult to assimilate new information. Denial, defensiveness, and distrust protect our cherished beliefs, rightly or wrongly.

As the collective becomes larger the converging principles become more difficult to apply and are easily overwhelmed by the diverging forces. Two people can successfully practice dialogue, put their two heads together and discover common ground. Several people conscientiously working together in a group can successfully apply these principles. A skillful group facilitator can be helpful here. Several tools and techniques for finding group consensus can be useful.

Larger groups, on the scale of an organization, school district, town, city, state, nation, or the world rely on various forms of governance to foster collaboration. Today we are struggling with a transition from tribal culture to a global culture. This continues to strain the various governance models now in place.  Efforts to evolve governments and even to intentionally evolve humanity are underway.

We can harness our collective wisdom to find common ground, seek real good, and live wisely together, it won’t be easy but it will be worthwhile.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The Transition, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Jordan Geeenhall, and Forrest Landry. See:
  2. One reason this is not well known is that it did not happen.
  3. These descriptions are actually at the “representation” level rather than the “reality” level because our language works at the representation level.
  4. Burton M.D., Robert A. (Mar 17, 2009). On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0312541521.