How many apples do you see?

Parables and metaphors are a powerful way to communicate deep truths, because they seem innocuous, yet hit right into our emotional self. Parables are rebellious. Parables are seditious. Yet parables are kind. They do not break anyone. They just break open the minds. Parables are agents of change. They were often used by Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and other masters of old, to introduce profound truths in simple ways, accessible to even the dullest of us. They are easily remembered; their lessons easy to catch, yet rich enough to keep meditating on. But are they still relevant today?

Our modern culture is heavily influenced by media and visualizations of all kinds. In a funny way, this visual culture makes it even easier to use metaphors and parables today. Our vivid imaginations have at their disposal much imagery to draw from to take visual analogies familiar elements such as tree, bread, seeds, sheep, etc. and build them, and keep them, in our minds.

I am very fond of parables and metaphors, to a point I didn’t recognize until a client at Credit Suisse told me one day “You’re the king of metaphors“. Although her praise was likely too kind, it made me realize I should use parables more intently, and I started studying the masters. Over the last year, I have read many of them, but did not do much more with them beyond using them in one-to-one coaching sessions and small team workshops.

Then this morning, I read a very interesting article, “The World’s Hardest Consulting Gig”, in Fast Company’s Startup: Afghanistan package. The below is a small extract from this article, at the very end, showing how young marines officers communicate with afghans to break into a culture that respects seniority in age and rank.

See this apple

Capt. Jake Owens knew the Afghans often communicated through parables, and he had inherited a favorite from a mentor. He holds up an apple and asks,

“How many apples do you see?” Most people answer, “One.”

“How many seeds are in the apple?” asks Owens. Say you guess eight.

“What happens if you plant those eight seeds?” You get eight trees and, of course, all the apples they produce.

“So how many apples am I holding in my hand?” Owens asks again.

Apple tree orchard

There will be more parables. Consider this the beginning of a series…

2 thoughts on “How many apples do you see?

  1. I agree as I too use metaphors in coaching and training. More often then not these are of my own making related to common experiences. I am not sure if the stories conveyed in parables can be conveyed as part of daily experience – context is important. So I suspect the “How many apples do you see?” example used on the field in Afghanistan is meaningful in a way that I can’t imagine given the context is missing. For one thing if apples weren’t commonly available and were alien to most people then it may not lend itself even if the context was right.

    • Tarang, thank you for your comment. And kudos to you for using metaphors. Your point about context is well noted. An example of that is sports analogies must really adapt to the cultural setting. Speaking about (American) Football in India might fall flat, as would referring to cricket in the US.

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