How to Find an Elephant in the Dark

Author: Casey Gale       

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

A core function of meetings is to quickly create shared perspective in a group, according to J. Elise Keith in her new book Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization. But the founder of Second Rise — a company that specializes in helping organizations scale effective meeting practices — understands that the abstract concept of “shared perspective” can be difficult for many to wrap our heads around.

In office meetings, for instance, individuals may feel as though they already know everything required to get their job done. At business events, attendees may feel as though they have a handle on the essential aspects of their industry. But according to Keith, every meeting attendee is working with blindfolds on — they just don’t know it.

Enter the (storied) elephant.

According to the folk tale, “six people who have never seen nor heard of an elephant enter a dark room. They each touch the elephant hidden inside the dark room to learn about it. Each person feels only one part of the elephant; just the tail, or just the trunk, for example,” Keith describes. “Each one forms a true, accurate, and very limited idea of what an elephant is. The person who felt the trunk believes an elephant is like a hose. The person who felt the side thinks it is like a wall.”

Well-structured meetings help people “share, compare, and merge what they each know independently into a more complete picture,” Keith writes. When people meet and share ideas, they can learn to share perspectives. They can appreciate the whole elephant.

To encourage this shared understanding, Keith writes that organizers should be clear on the desired outcome of the meeting. A desired outcome could be a decision, a plan, a commitment, a new understanding, a resolution, etc. When a desired outcome is understood by all meeting attendees, it is easier to come to a shared perspective, Keith explains.

“The shared perspective in a doesn’t just include what the group agrees on the surface,” Keith writes. “It also includes what they learn and believe that they didn’t before, and how they feel about the whole thing.”

Keith acknowledges that there are other ways to create shared perspective, of course — emails, reports, books, and video conferencing can all do the trick, too — but there’s nothing quite like face-to-face meetings.

“The key is the word ‘quickly,’” Keith writes. “Meetings quickly create shared perspective. When well-executed, the other adjective I’d add is ‘reliably,’ as no other communication tool gives you the same level of clarity and control than a meeting can.”