The Case of the Mysterious Parrot

This tip is about effective communication, a hot topic for executives who are leading change within their organisations. We may think we are communicating at our best when we carefully craft our words. But our most powerful communication often occurs in unintended ways. In a poem by Rumi, a great thirteenth-century mystical poet, he tells the following story about an Indian parrot.

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A wealthy merchant is setting out for a business trip to India. He asks his staff what they would like brought back as a gift. Each asks for a different exotic object: a piece of silk, a brass figurine, a pearl necklace.

Then he asks his beautiful caged parrot what she would like. She says:

“When you see the Indian parrots, describe my cage. Say that I need guidance here in my separation from them. Ask how our friendship can continue with me so confined, and them flying freely in the meadow mist. Tell them I remember our mornings moving together from tree to tree. Tell them to drink a cup of nectar in honor of me here in the dregs of my life. Tell them that the sound of their quarreling high in the trees would be sweeter to hear than any music.”

This parrot is the spirit in each of us that seeks freedom, and is freedom.

So the parrot gave his message to the merchant, and when he reaches India, he sees a field full of parrots. He stops and calls out what she told him. One of the nearest birds shivers, stiffens and falls down dead. The merchant is shocked and thinks to himself, “This one was surely a family member of my parrot. Perhaps I should not have said anything.”

He finishes his trading, returns home and gives each of his staff their present. As he passes the parrot, she demands her gift. “What happened when you told my story to the Indian parrots?”

“I’m afraid to say.” replies the merchant.

“Master you must!” the parrot insists.

“When I shared your complaint with the field of parrots it broke one of their hearts. She must have been a close companion or a relative, for when she heard about you, she grew quiet and trembled, and died.”

As the caged parrot hears this, she starts to quiver, she stiffens, she closes her eyes, and falls to the floor of the cage motionless. The merchant is a good man and is overcome with grief. But he is also filled with anger and confusion. He opens the cage, picks up the “dead” parrot and throws it out the window, at which point it spreads its wings and glides to a nearby tree! The merchant suddenly understands the mystery of what has happened, and the trick that has been played on him.

He smiles as the parrot flies off into the distance. “Ah my sweet friend, I have passed to you a message that contained the secret to your freedom.”

Did you get the message?

In addition to whatever personal meaning you take from this story, I’d invite you to consider its message about communication and collaboration. The most powerful messages often travel informally — a subtle glance, a cryptic comment or a shift in one’s tone of voice. The expression of the eyes, or indeed a lack of eye contact, will always tell you more about what someone is thinking and feeling, and how engaged they are, than what they say. The same goes for groups. To be an effective leader, you need to be sensitive to these cues.

Leading a franchise network requires high levels of empathy and advanced communication skills. These encourage trust and collaboration. Humility and a willingness to seek feedback from franchisees are also extremely useful for staying in touch with what's really going on. Because effective leaders understand that things are not always what they seem.  If you are a franchisor executive based in Australia or New Zealand we welcome you to join us at the 2019 Franchisor Executive Masterclass on May 20-21 where we will be exploring solutions to 7 hot challenges currently facing franchisors.


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