A powerful metaphor can change the way we think. That’s been known for many years – by politicians, religious leaders, entertainers, advertisers, teachers and more.

Here’s a personal example. Recently, I’ve enjoyed some very useful new insights thanks to a metaphor from Jonathan Haidt in his fascinating book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt likens the mind to a rider on an elephant. The rider is the conscious part of the mind – the small fraction of our being that we are aware of – and the elephant is everything else.

It’s also well known that a powerful metaphor can be used to communicate complex ideas quickly and easily.

That’s because it makes sense not only to the rider (the conscious mind) but also to the elephant (the unconscious). The elephant isn’t always great with abstract words, but it loves metaphors and understands them easily.

Riders, elephants and information

When you want to get some information from another person, what do you do? You ask them: in other words, you ask their rider.

This works very well for information the person is consciously aware of, such as the name of the capital of Afghanistan or the recipe for apple pie.

At the same time, your elephant is communicating with theirs, and picking up all kinds of subtle clues to things like their social status and emotional state: the kind of things animals love to notice about each other.

It’s as if the riders and elephants are speaking different languages, and the two conversations are going on in parallel.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But what happens when you need some of the information the elephant has, but the rider isn’t aware of? For example:

  • what motivates the person most powerfully?
  • why do they continue with habits they know are unhealthy, such as smoking and overeating?
  • what do they really want from a new system, a new partner, or a new job?

Interviewing elephants

That’s where X-Ray Listening comes in. A trained X-Ray Listener is like an Elephant Whisperer.

Once you can understand Elephantese, new kinds of communication become possible. You can:

  • hear and understand your own elephant
  • interview and understand another person’s elephant.

It’s not only fascinating, but extremely useful. For example, the new insights and understandings about other people can be used to develop systems, products or services that work perfectly for them. If you want to coach someone to change, helping them to understand their elephant can make the process almost effortless.

And what if you want to change yourself? I’m personally delighted to be able to say that X-Ray Listening works there, too. It’s great to have your elephant on board when you want to:

  • lose weight
  • stop smoking
  • get more exercise
  • sleep better
  • attract the perfect partner
  • get promoted
  • be less anxious
  • change limiting beliefs
  • …and so on.

Internal conflicts, and the constant frustration of getting in your own way, can be dramatically reduced. And when such situations do arise, it’s possible to take real action to change them.

In fact, when you and your elephant really understand each other and work together as the perfect team, life’s a joy.

    16 replies to "Elephant Whispering"

    • Mark Harris

      Hi Judy, a great article and excellent use of Elephant metaphors – really helped to clarify your message. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jennifer Shipside

      Hi Judy

      Love the metaphor – very powerful.

      Looking forward to hearing about your new developments.

      Meanwhile, hope your wedding goes brilliantly, the weather is kind to you and iot’s all the beginning of a wonderful new period of your life.

      Very best wishes


    • Mike Holland

      Hi Judy,
      Great article and the elephant metaphor really works for me.
      Look forward to hearing about your new project.
      Best wishes for the future

    • Nellie

      Hi Judy,
      Nice to know your elephant isn’t being distracted by your impending nuptials.
      More great stuff.
      Gotta go and score something to put up my trunk.
      Best Wishes.

    • Mike

      First off, I didn’t know you were available and single and had I knew I’d have probably proposed sooner than later, had you really know me. 🙂

      Just so, definitely he knows he’s got a keeper and the relationship goes first and thrives. So, the congratulation’s goes to you from Him and to he, fatherhood and motherhood the ultimate glory.

      Anyways, who does really gets to train inside each, the elephant or the rider within, both? The Five Love Languages.

      Again anyways, Congratulations! and Have Fun!!! I love your abstracts, metaphors, puns and clean language!

    • Steve Cowie


      Glad to know you are trumpeting Clean Language. I know you’ll never forget or pack your trunk and run away to the circus!

      I’ll keep my ears open and not get in a flap when learning it from your book; I’m sure I’ll have no problem remembering.

      kind regards

    • Julian

      Hi Judy,

      Elephants can communicate over vast distances using sub sonic booms 😉

    • Cheryl

      Hi Judy

      The elephant metaphor is wonderful – and certainly one I connected to as my husband always says ‘is it an elephant’ when I get stuck for words! The elephant whisperer – what a wonderful phrase, what would that conjour up in peoples minds…………..??

    • Jack Austin

      Hi Judy,

      Really like the Elephant metaphor. So much more useful than the “iceberg” metaphor so often used–we don’t see icebergs as dynamic or “intelligent”. Then there is that bit about elephants never forgetting….now the moniker “the elephant whisperer” is no longer abstruse.

      Thanks for the “clean language” applications as well.



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