Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons License) by: Mike Burns
The Game of Darts – An Allegory
“Other than the people involved, what else do you need in order to play the game of darts?”
With this question, so began another one of grandfather’s life lessons.
“Darts . . . a dartboard . . . and a scorecard,” I said slowly.
“Very good,” grandfather responded. “Why do you need each one of them?”
“You throw the darts at the dartboard in order to score points and the scorecard keeps track of who’s winning,” I said.
“Excellent,” said grandfather. “Now which do you think is more fun, keeping score or throwing darts?”
“Since I’m still too young to throw darts, I guess I’m supposed to say keeping score,” I sarcastically replied.
Grandfather gave me an icy stare. He wasn’t a fan of sarcasm.
“Sorry,” I said quietly while looking down at my scuffling feet. “But throwing darts is obviously more fun.”
“Yes, obviously throwing darts is more fun,” grandfather continued, “but keeping score is important as we previously established. Now, which do you think is more fun, throwing darts or being the dartboard?”
“Huh? I . . . um . . . I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don't understand the question.”
“Do you think it would be fun being the dartboard?” repeated grandfather. “Obviously, I do not mean you or any person for that matter, and I want to be very clear on this—especially if your parents ask—NEVER actually throw darts at anyone! I am asking you to use your imagination and think about what the game of darts feels like from the perspective of the dartboard.”
I quietly stared at the dartboard while my eight-year-old mind struggled to make sense of the question.
“Don’t hurt yourself by thinking too hard,” grandfather joked.
“I don’t think it would be any fun at all to be the dartboard,” I answered in a soft and serious tone. “I bet the dartboard doesn’t like this game at all. I bet the dartboard thinks this game sucks—er, I mean—stinks.”
“Yes, the dartboard probably thinks the game is cruel,” grandfather replied. “After all, it’s not like the dartboard ever gets to take a turn . . . and throw itself at the darts.”
Grandfather gave me a goofy grin and then he laughed out loud. He was a big fan of laughter.
I giggled uncontrollably while my eight-year-old mind played a cartoon-like image of the dartboard throwing itself at the darts.
As we both slowly regained our composure, grandfather continued. “Now, let’s imagine that the game of darts is an allegory, another way of thinking about something, such as three people having a conversation. For example, you, me, and your brother.”
“Um, okay,” I replied.
“Let’s say your brother is upset and yelling at me about something,” started grandfather.
“Ha! That’s easy to imagine,” I interrupted. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“Your brother is upset—yes, easy to imagine but not the point—of the three required things necessary in order to play the game, which one is your brother?” asked grandfather.
“The darts!” I replied.
“And if he is yelling at me, which one of the three things am I?” asked grandfather.
“The dartboard—and that makes me the scorecard—why I am always the scorecard?” I whined.
“Settle down, I’m trying to make a point here,” grandfather retorted.
“You can’t make a point—you’re the dartboard—not the darts,” I mumbled.
“Very good smart ass—er, I mean smart aleck—yes, I am the dartboard and being the dartboard isn’t any fun, remember?” grandfather replied.
I quietly nodded my head, knowing not to push my luck with another sarcastic remark.
“But if nobody’s the dartboard,” grandfather resumed, “then your brother and I couldn’t be playing the game of darts, could we?”
I had previously been through enough lessons with grandfather that I knew what was coming next.
“So, what’s my p—what am I trying to say?” asked grandfather.
“Um, that when three people are having a conversation,” I slowly responded, “and one of them starts yelling at another, the one who is yelling is the darts, the one being yelled at is the dartboard, it’s no fun being the dartboard, no one likes getting yelled at, but . . . everyone needs someone to yell at . . . and needs someone else to keep score?”
“That’s pretty close,” grandfather replied. “In most conversations, everyone is simply waiting for their turn to speak—their turn to throw the word-darts. When it’s not their turn, they become the scorecard in order to track how the conversation is going. The dartboard is usually the topic of the conversation—what they’re taking turns throwing the word-darts at. However, when the conversation turns into an argument . . .”
“Then they start throwing word-darts at each other,” I interjected on cue, “taking turns turning each other into the dartboard, and nobody likes being the dartboard!”
“Correct!” said grandfather.
“But you also said that if nobody is the dartboard, then you can’t play the game. I’m a little confused,” I responded.
“Yes, that is the most challenging thing about effective communication,” continued grandfather. “Although no one likes being the dartboard, sometimes a dartboard is exactly what the other person needs you to be. Other times, a scorecard is exactly what the other person needs you to be . . .”
“When they need to be the only one throwing all of the word-darts?” I asked.
“Correct!” said grandfather.
“Therefore, what you’re saying is that,” I thoughtfully concluded, “sometimes you’re the darts, sometimes you’re the scorecard, and sometimes you’re the dartboard. You can’t play the game of darts unless you have all three. Therefore, you can’t have effective communication unless you’re willing to sometimes talk, sometimes listen, and sometimes be willing to get yelled at.”
“That’s my boy!” said grandfather. “You know, you’re pretty smart for your age.”
“That’s because I take after grandmother.”