I’d like to share with you a cool little model that illustrates a trap we fall into time and time again in our communications, and what we can do to avoid falling into this trap. This cool little model is called “A cone in a box” and is something I learned from my friend and colleague, Judy Brown, who learned it from her friend and colleague Bob Ginnett.

So imagine you have a big square cardboard box that is upside down. And imagine that hidden inside that box is a big upside down cone, like a great big icecream cone (with its pointy side up). And at the top of the box is a little peephole that looks directly down on that cone. And in the middle of one side of the box is another peephole which looks sideways at that same cone. Now if we look through that first peephole directly down on the cone, what are we likely to see? We’ll see the bottom outline of the cone which will look to us like a circle, right? And if we look through that second peephole, what are we likely to see? We’ll see the sides of the cone, which, from this vantage point will look like a triangle, right?

So now here’s where this gets interesting. If someone asks us what’s in that box, when we look through that first peephole, what are we likely to say? “It’s a circle.” And when we look through the second peephole, and someone asks us what’s in there, what are we likely to say? “It’s a triangle.” Right? You see, automatically, we collapse our perspective on what’s in there with what is actually there. All too often, we don’t say “I see a circle”. We say “It’s a circle.” Now what if we’re at work and you’re the boss, and you’ve looked through the top peephole and you have seen a circle? Hmmm…well if your workplace is like many workplaces, the shyer people on your staff might prefer letting that object be defined as a circle than tell you that they see a triangle and risk annoying you. That’s a problem, right? And if two of your coworkers of equal rank look through the different peepholes, how are they likely to resolve what’s in there? More often than not, they’ll start debating it, and whoever argues best for a circle or triangle will win. And in neither case has anyone determined that there’s actually a cone in that box. Now how many times does this go on at work and at home? All the time, right?

We tend to talk past each other, not willing to admit that maybe our understanding is partial, and that others might be able to see something that is hidden from our own view. But if we assume that everyone whose viewpoint is different from ours actually is speaking to something that is true from their perspective, and when we try to stitch their “truth” with our “truth” in service of discovering something that neither can yet see, just think how much more powerful our communications can be, and how much more we will learn about what’s really going on. Now to do this, we need to take responsibility for owning what we see. If I see a circle and someone else sees a triangle, by golly, it’s important that I say “I see a circle” and acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint too, so that together we can be co-explorers discovering what’s really going on inside that box. That’s important and that takes courage.

It also suggests that for many situations, it’s important to get the input of people who see things differently from us- who can see the very thing that we are blind to. That, too, takes courage. So the next time you find yourself slipping into a debate about an issue, think of this cone in the box. How might you change the conversation you are having so that together, you both can see the cone in the box?