I want you to do a quick exercise.  Imagine you see a wounded deer on the side of the road.  What do you do?

To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in what you do about the deer. I’m interested in what your road looked like. So, reflect for a moment. What did your road look like?  Were you walking or driving? If driving, what kind of car were you driving? Was it nighttime or daytime?  Were you alone or with someone? What part of the road was the deer on? Were there other cars around you? Was it cold or warm outside?  

These may sound like crazy questions because you may have assumed that everyone would have understood that situation in more or less a similar way.  You may have assumed that your road was more or less “normal” and that others conceptualized the road in the same way that you did. But they probably didn’t.

This example comes from a real-life experience I had, and it made a huge impact on me, which is why I continue to talk about it.  Here’s the story:

I had been living in Argentina for 7 years and had recently relocated to Hong Kong.  These are two very different places. They’re literally on opposite sides of the planet, and I was still in the process of getting used to the changes.  

I was the head of a company in Hong Kong and as part of my efforts to drive cultural changes at work, we did an activity with all of the managers in the organization that focused on Myers-Briggs personality types.  The facilitators broke us into smaller groups, and I was with 6 people of varying levels of seniority when the facilitator asked us, “You see a wounded deer on the side of the road. What do you do?”

In my mind, I was immediately transported back to Argentina.  I was in an old pickup truck, driving down a bumpy road in Patagonia, with nobody around for miles, music coming in and out on the radio, the air was dry, I was in jeans with a scarf and a sweater and vest and boots, it was late afternoon, it was chilly, and I just kept driving past the deer.  I mean, what was I going to do alone with a big, wounded deer?

Well, thank goodness I did not speak first.  The facilitator asked a young Hong Kong Chinese woman to answer the question, and she said, “Well the first thing I would do is get out of the car and start directing traffic.”  I looked at her and thought, “Traffic?!?!? Are you kidding me? There’s no traffic.” Then she continued that she would put orange cones up on the road around the deer. She would put a blanket on the deer and pray for it.  Then she would call animal control to come help. I’m thinking, “There’s no animal control in Patagonia!!!!!”

After my initial reaction wore off and I actually started listening to her, I realized that her deer WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A BUSY ROAD IN HONG KONG!  For anyone who has been in Hong Kong, you’ll know that the density is insane and the concern that Hong Kong people have for the safety of themselves and those around them is profound.

My mind was blown.

Her deer was in the middle of a busy road.  In Hong Kong. At night. With lights and traffic and people and help from police officers and animal control.  I was speechless. And grateful I hadn’t spoken first because they would have thought their new leader was heartless if I’d said I was in the middle of nowhere and leaving the deer on the side of the road without tending to it.  

This was such a profound lesson for me because I realized that it’s essential to seek clarity about how someone is conceptualizing a situation – especially when dealing with people from other cultures but even when dealing with people from my own culture.  Because of our different conditioning and varying experiences about the conditions under which we’re likely to see a wounded deer on the side of the road, we are not all likely to understand the scenario in the same way. It takes time to ask questions, and then clarify how someone else is seeing the situation, but it’s worthwhile to do so. And then follow up with conversation about the different perspectives and conceptualizations of the same scenario if you want to avoid misunderstandings.

I have done this exercise over and over – with college students in the US, with business groups in Europe and Latin America, and with random friends and acquaintances over cocktails.  It never ceases to amaze me how surprised people are to realize that others conceptualized the “deer in the road” scenario in such different ways and with such varying levels of detail.

The key point here is that we are conditioned to conceptualize situations in certain ways, and the way we are conceptualizing may not be similar to how others are conceptualizing the same situation.  It’s worth it to step back, acknowledge how your own conditioning influences the lens through which you see situations and also be aware that others may not be seeing it the same way as you.