Do you have communication problems in your organization? Do people argue endlessly, pointlessly, and never seem to make any progress? And do these communication issues end up with frustrated, grumpy, and unproductive people?
I see a lot of nodding heads, so this month I’d like to share with you one of my favorite classroom demonstrations which will help your organization improve its training and clarify its communication. You can incorporate it into any instructor-led training and it is especially nice because it gets people standing up, laughing, and best of all, thinking.
A simple set of facts
To get started, read the following passage to your learners.
- A hunter is walking through a forest when he spots a squirrel on a tree in front of him. He slowly draws back his bow, but as he does so, the squirrel quickly moves to the opposite side of the tree. The hunter decides to stalk the squirrel and he begins to walk in a clockwise direction around the tree. But each time he takes a step, the squirrel takes an evasive step staying on the opposite side of the tree. The hunter continues moving clockwise around the tree but he never again sees the elusive squirrel. Eventually the hunter finds himself back where he started.
The facts of the case are pretty straight forward, but you can reread the passage verbatim until everyone agrees they understands the scenario. Then ask them the following seemingly innocuous question:
“Did the hunter go around the squirrel?”
The answer seems obvious to most people. Before we continue, let me ask what you think. Do you think that the hunter went around the squirrel?
I have done this demonstration many times, and what is intriguing is that about half of the participants say, “Yes, he went around the squirrel,” and half answer with an equally emphatic, “No, he did not go around the squirrel.”
Everyone thinks they are right
The students are bewildered. “The facts are so simple,” they wonder, “how can anyone possibly disagree?”
I then invite students to justify their respective options. The students who answered “no” typically offer a solution that goes like this:
- The hunter went around the tree, but he did not go around the squirrel. The squirrel was always on the opposite side of the tree. Imagine that the tree is not there. The hunter and squirrel would be facing each other the whole time.
The students who answered “yes” typically respond with an argument that goes something like this:
- The hunter went around the tree and the squirrel was on the tree. Therefore the hunter must have gone around the squirrel. It is true that squirrel was also moving in a circle, but the hunter formed the larger concentric circle so he must have gone around the squirrel.
Figure 1: Debating the “squirrel and hunter” at the DevLearn 2014 conference
The discussion can become quite animated. Some people insist on drawing their explanation on a whiteboard or recruiting classmates to do a real world simulation. Occasionally, the discussion persuades someone to change their mind, but for the most part, people have chosen their position and spend their energies proving why they are right.
Does this sound familiar?
What is the problem here? Everyone agrees on the “facts,” and the question being asked is simple. Why do smart people continue to disagree?
The answer is simple but elusive: the two groups are defining the word “around” in different ways. For the “yes” group “around” means to create a large circle that entirely circumscribes what is within it. If this is your definition of “around,” then the hunter did indeed go around the squirrel. For the “no” group, “around” means to circle an object and to see all four sides: its front, left side, back, and right side. If this is your definition of “around,” then the hunter did not go around the squirrel.
So which definition is correct? Both. There can be many reasonable ways to define a term, and in this case, both definitions are totally reasonable ways to define “around.” Given that we can use simple words very differently, what is important is that we check in with each other and ensure that everyone in a conversation is using their words to mean the same thing.
A failure to communicate
Many of the world’s arguments can be traced to differences in the way we define terms. I watched two colleagues arguing who was the greater basketball player. One said it was Kobe Bryant because he was a great defender and made clutch shots. The other argued that it was LeBron James because of his leadership and his ability to score a lot of points. They argued like crazy, but you know what? They did not disagree about any of the facts. They simply disagreed on the definition of what constitutes a great player.
In an example closer to home, I recently heard about a mother and daughter who were arguing. Mom complained that her daughter never apologized to her and it made her very angry.
“My bad, Mom” said the daughter.
“And that is another thing,” said Mom. “I am so tired of you always saying, ‘My bad.’”
Figure 2: Paul Newman as the title character in Cool Hand Luke
As they say in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Mom complains that her daughter fails to apologize while that is exactly what the daughter doing every time she says, “My bad.”
These language problems have posed a challenge for millennia. The Greek philosopher Socrates recognized the danger, and in fact the story of the hunter and squirrel is a variation of one of his lessons. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived about the same time as Socrates, saw it too. He was once asked what he’d do first if he were made emperor. He replied that he’d insist that every word have only one meaning.
Clarifying communication in our organizations
Unfortunately, we are not in a position to insist that words have only one meaning. But using demonstrations like this, we can at least help our organizations become aware that language can confuse us and prevent us from finding solutions that are pleasing to all of us.
Do you have favorite demonstrations that promote critical and clear thinking? Feel free to describe them in the comments or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will share these with readers in a future column.
If you would like to have your memory of this article reinforced, send an email to ELGJan2015@aklearning.com. You will automatically receive a series of boosters on this article. The boosters take only seconds to complete, and they will profoundly increase your ability to recall the content of this article.
A fantastic discussion of this topic is presented by the American economist and engineer Stuart Chaser. His book Tyranny of Words was written in 1959, but his examples and his insights are as valuable as ever.