Recently on social media, a short riddle circulated that exemplifies one of the many so-called secret tools that mediators help parties employ when seeking to resolve disputes.

First, the riddle: In a square room there is a cat in every corner of the room. In front of every cat there are 3 cats. How many cats are there in all?

Hint: it is not a math problem.

The key to solving the riddle is in perspective shifting. Experienced mediators are able to solve this riddle in fairly short order because we are trained in perspective shifting. What does that mean? The concept is simple (though, like everything else, requires practice to be effective): when we work with parties involved in a dispute, we do so by examining the problem (and possible solutions) from various angles. We ask not only “How would a judge view the situation?” but “How would an engineer view it?” An accountant? An elementary school teacher? A nurse? A stockbroker? A hotel manager? Notice that we don’t necessarily ask the parties in a dispute to imagine the perspective of the other party (which may be too difficult, given the degree of emotions and biases in play), but from that of an objective party in a particular position. It is a technique that can break through impasse, dodge personal bias, help save face, and inspire proposals for durable and pragmatic solutions. And the best part is that one doesn’t need a credential in engineering, accounting, teaching, nursing, investment brokerage, or even being a cat to employ the technique.

An old allegory (possibly dating to the 1920’s, though its origin is in dispute) illustrates how parties can often feel and behave when stuck on their own narrative – their own perspective. It tells of a police officer who comes across a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost. The officer asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost. “No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Then why are looking over here?” asks the perplexed officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds.

Moral: failure to explore places other than where it is convenient and comfortable to see the world will often leave you stuck in the same place.

On that note, consider the cat riddle from the perspective of the cat: if you are one of the cats in one of the corners facing into the square room, what do you see? From that vantage point, you see the three other cats “in front of” you. Thus, assuming the law of gravity applies (i.e. no cats occupy the 4 corners of the ceiling), the answer is . . .

[Do not read past this sentence if you are still trying to work it out on your own]

. . .

Four.