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  • Donald E. Hester

Mastering Emotional Intelligence: Lessons from the Rider and the Elephant Metaphor

A few years ago, I realized something important about myself. For as long as I can remember, even as a child, I have been drawn to robots or characters who prioritize rationality over emotion. Even now, I still prefer hyper-rational characters like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This preference is also why I enjoy engaging in dispassionate philosophical debates.


However, more recently, I've noticed that my behavior of insisting on reason, logic, or facts when someone is emotional has led to trouble in my personal and professional relationships. I used to think that people's emotions were their problem and that the facts were the facts. But this attitude was not constructive, and it damaged some of my relationships.


I recently read a book summary that introduced me to the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. This metaphor has its roots in ancient Indian literature and philosophy, where it was used to describe the relationship between the atman, or the individual soul, and the body. The rider represents the atman or the conscious, rational mind, while the elephant represents the body or our subconscious, emotional impulses. The metaphor was popularized in the West by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book "The Happiness Hypothesis," where he used it to describe the relationship between our rational and emotional minds.


The rider on the elephant metaphor emphasizes the importance of understanding the relationship between our rational and emotional minds. While the rider can guide and direct the movements of the elephant, it ultimately relies on the elephant's cooperation to reach its destination. Similarly, our rational mind can guide and direct our emotional impulses, but it is often our emotions that determine our actions and behaviors. When the rider and the elephant are in sync, they can work together to achieve common goals, but when they are in conflict, the elephant's emotions can overpower the rider's rationality and lead to impulsive or irrational behavior.


This metaphor offers a helpful way to think about emotional intelligence. To communicate with the rider, one must first address the elephant. When the elephant is upset or agitated, the rider cannot hear reason until the emotions are acknowledged and addressed. For example, in a team meeting, when a guest made comments that indirectly questioned the integrity of the team lead, the meeting became tense, and the lead became upset. While I tried to communicate with the rider and suggested moving on, my colleague was able to connect with the elephant by acknowledging and affirming the lead's emotions. By doing so, the lead was able to calm down, and the meeting was able to continue productively.


I gained valuable insights from my colleague about how to soothe emotional responses. In the past, my approach had been to focus solely on the facts and rational points, but now I recognize that acknowledging and addressing emotions is crucial. During the team meeting, when my colleague labeled and affirmed our team lead's emotions, it made all the difference in how our message was received. Although I may have had the right course of action before, I understand now that the way I communicate is just as important as the content of my message.


Reflecting on past conversations, I realize that I often focused too much on the rider and missed the elephant altogether. Going forward, I hope to improve my communication skills by better understanding and addressing emotions. However, this does not mean that we should allow emotional people to behave inappropriately. As Indian law states, if the rider or owner of an elephant causes harm to any person or property, they shall be held liable for the damages caused. Similarly, we all have a responsibility to control our own elephants, even in emotional situations.

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