Listening to your elephant

If you’ve ever slept in, texted your ex at midnight, tried to stop smoking and failed… it could be time for a chat with your Elephant.

In Switch, Chip and Dan Heath use a metaphor from The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, in which the subconscious mind is described as an Elephant, and the the rational, conscious mind as its Rider.

The Heaths say: “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

“Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this is you’ve ever slept in, dialled up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scare, and so on. Good thing no one is keeping score.”

They add: “Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road for long enough to reach the destination.”

So, what happens next? You might be tempted to “tame” your Elephant, bringing it sharply into line. My experience suggests that doesn’t work, at least for more than a very short time.

You might follow the Heath’s suggestion and train your Elephant as you would any other animal – give it lots of praise and rewards whenever its behaviour comes close to what you want. This works well, but it only goes so far.

You might learn to talk to your Elephant in the language it understands, the language of metaphor. All great storytellers and powerful persuaders know that a good metaphor can slide past the rational brain and directly affect the Elephant – who actually makes most buying decisions.

And there’s still one more level. To really get to know your Elephant, to understand it properly, you need to learn listen to it, too.

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