Elephant Mastery

by Jennifer Day

Last year, I came across an analogy in a book (The Happiness Hypothosis by Jonathan Haidt) that struck me as very clever. Encountering it again a few months ago in another book (Switch by Chip and Dan Heath), my esteem increased by several notches from "That's clever" to "That's bloody brilliant!" and then "What a terrific analogy for coaches to use!"

The analogy I'm referring to describes the concept many of you may be aware of; that our emotions underlie our thinking, which in turn drives our behaviour. However it describes this concept in somewhat more imaginative and compelling terms, looking something like this:

Imagine that a person is riding an elephant along a pathway. The elephant represents our emotions. The person riding the elephant represents our thinking (the brain) and the pathway represents our environment, such as the people are surroundings we interact with and the destination we are headed for.

For a journey to run smoothly, the pathway needs to be obvious, not cluttered by too much junk, wide enough and otherwise conducive to the journey and the safe arrival at our chosen destination.

While the idea of a path needing to be clear and conducive is probably an analogy you are already familiar with, the concept that is more unusual here is using an elephant to symbolize emotions, while rational thought is represented by a mere man—mere in terms of comparative size to the elephant, that is!

In this context size does matter, because it indicates power and force and, as we know (even if we rarely take it into consideration on a daily basis), emotions are more powerful than thoughts. In fact, emotions are so much more powerful than thoughts that the ratio is probably quite accurately depicted in this image. Keep going with the analogy and it may look something like this:

When the elephant is well fed and watered (content), looked after (acknowledged), cared for (validated), and well-trained (ability for self-regulation and self-soothing) he is happy to oblige the will of his rider's commands (logical reasoning) and go where his rider tells him to go.

However, if he has been deprived of food and water (denial), has been neglected (invalidated and left untrained) and kept confined (suppressed), he will not be in any condition to obey his master well. If the rider attempts to force his compliance, the elephant will likely become resentful, uncooperative, defiant, and eventually veer out of control (frustration, anger, or other unpleasant emotion). No matter how much the rider holds the reins and may look like he's in charge, at that point he is immobilized simply because the six-ton elephant is the larger, more powerful one. Imagine trying to reach your destination in this scenario!

Translate all this back to your own day-to-day environment thoughts, and emotions—and those of your clients—and you may get some insights into why life isn't always happening the way we want or think it should! For example, do you ever find yourself escaping into your laptop during meetings when you know you shouldn't be? Or not speaking up when you know you should? Do you ever hear yourself saying something you'll regret, but you can't stop yourself? Or losing your temper and yelling at your child? Do you know you shouldn't be eating that cholesterol-packed meal but you just can't help it? Do you want to be exercising or meditating but can't seem to get around to it? I could go on and on with examples of procrastination, flared tempers, avoidance, stressed out behaviors, and—well, you get the picture!

When your elephant rider wants you to stop (or start) doing something, but you neglect to address your elephant's needs, your elephant could very well charge off and leave your wishes and plans by the side of the road. Or he may just settle himself down and refuse to move at all. Does that sound like what sometimes happens to you?

The good news is that when your elephant rider considers the elephant's needs, and the two of them work together, you can rest assured that you will arrive at your destination (what you want to achieve or how you'd like to behave). And when your brain's systems are working together so coherently, you will gain the heightened intelligence to ensure that the pathway—your environment and conditions—is as supportive as possible.

So next time you feel yourself not being congruent in thought and deed, or in feeling and expression, give yourself a brief time out. Practice some deep breathing and ask yourself what is going on with your elephant. Or is there something going on with your elephant rider—over-analysis, over-thinking, etc.—that is creating some emotional insecurity in your elephant? Whatever comes to you, however brief an insight, write it down; if appropriate, act on it.

This whole process will normally take 2-3 minutes, but can often save you hours or even weeks by gaining the increased coherence between elephant and rider! And the more often you practice this, the easier and quicker it will get. Once you've practiced it enough and feel it works for you, try it out with your clients—in my experience, there really is nothing like developing this kind of emotional intelligence; getting the elephant and rider working together. I call it Applied Emotional Mastery, but maybe we should call it Elephant Mastery!


Jennifer Day teaches and coaches coaching practitioners, managers, executives, and parents to help themselves and others build resilience to stress and higher levels of emotional intelligence. She developed AEM – Applied Emotional Mastery ® , a methodology for practical, ‘on the go’ emotional self-regulation. www.AppliedEmotionalMastery.com

2 thoughts on “Elephant Mastery”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Tatiana. Well put! The elephant is, I also find, often very resistant, although I find it more relaxed and open to being helped when the rider is taught how to access/generate the good feeling state. It’s a little like giving the client a tool to get back up from the canyon (of emotions) before sending them down into it!
    Thanks again for your comment 🙂

  2. This is very helpful, Jennifer, thank you! I work in health and wellness and most often the elephant rider, in this analogy, wants to lose weight and achieve work/life balance in one way or another, yet the elephant is already comfortably lying down, asleep actually. The elephant gets rather annoyed when woken up to walk on what is perceived to be a VERY bothersome journey! So the client would know where to start by clearing the path, caring for the elephant, and revealing the bigger benefits of getting to that chosen destination.

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