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Change: Elephants and Riders

Posted on November 7, 2014

We are in the business of change. As helpers, we work to help clients make positive life changes. As advocates, we try to change policies and systems that we see hurting our clients and communities. These two sides of our work came together for me in a whole new way last May at the National Health Care for the Homeless Conference. Along with my good friend and Director of Policy for National Health Care for the Homeless Council Barbara DiPietro, I presented Motivational Interviewing with a Twist: Facilitating Communication and Change with Policymakers. I want to share an analogy that I used at that training, as I think it can help us visualize change, both at the client and community levels. 
This analogy comes to us through the work of psychologist Jonathon Haidt. Dr. Haidt identifies two key aspects to the change process: intellect and emotion. In his analogy, we use a rider on an elephant. The rider represents the cognitive, or thinking, parts of our brain, and the elephant represents the emotional parts of our brain. In order to successfully change behaviors in groups or individuals, we must help move both the rider and the elephant.  
The rider, or intellect, is critical because it provides direction and can think beyond the emotions of the present moment. The rider responds to research and logical argument, but doesn’t provide much energy to move the change forward. Without emotional energy, the rider will think things to death and will end up spinning its wheels in the mud. Think of a time where everyone in a group knew the right thing to do but no one was very excited about doing it…what happened? Maybe the change eventually happened, but words like painful, slow, and arduous probably came to mind as well. 
The elephant, on the other hand, also has its strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, the elephant gives energy and motivation to a change process. The elephant prevents the rider from getting stuck in over-intellectualization. Unfortunately, our elephant also loves instant gratification and doesn’t do well with long-term thinking and delaying gratification. While the rider can contemplate future payoff and benefits, the elephant needs short-term rewards and successes to keep moving forward. 
While the rider might seem in control, sitting high with their hands on the reins, the reality is that if a five ton elephant doesn’t want to move, it isn’t going anywhere. On the flip side, if the elephant really wants to get somewhere, the little person on top is pretty much along for the ride. Change happens when both sides of our brain are engaged and working together. 
Change most often happens in the context of relationships. Safe, trusting, and honest relationships help keep the elephant in the room and give us access to the other’s rider. While we are experts at doing this with clients, too often this fact is overlooked in our change work with funders and lawmakers. There is always a time for marching and protests when confronted with injustice. However, complex change needs riders in the room to find collaborative paths forward. 
In their great book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath outline a research-based approach to helping people change by utilizing both the emotional and intellectual sides of ourselves. After trust and safety is established, the next step is to provide the rider with direction. To do this, we should begin with identifying what is currently working and past successes. Connecting past and present success to the change being considered helps build confidence and puts the person in a good and emotionally regulated mindset in which to move forward.
Next, we should help the person script the critical moves. As the helpers and advocates, we help promote change by creating a roadmap with small, concrete, and achievable steps. Start where the person currently is and work with them to create a shared understanding of how they will move forward.
Finally, point to the end destination. This is where the roadmap mentioned above comes to a final destination. Knowing where one is going and why it is important to get there will go a long way to motivate the rider. 
Once you have the buy-in from the rider, it is time to motivate the elephant. As with anything weighing in at several tons…you don’t want to scare the elephant! Remember that the elephant likes instant gratification, and it won’t respond well to distant payoff. So break the change down into small objectives. Ending homelessness, stopping heroin use, creating a trauma informed school, applying for a job, or achieving universal health care might seem too big and spook the elephant. What are small steps that need to happen to reach these goals? If we can help those we work with to focus on concrete and small first steps, we help them avoid the emotional reaction that breaks the partnership.
The next step is connecting the desire, reason, and need for the change with the core values or emotional motivation of the person. These core values or emotional motivations might come from religious beliefs, their past experiences (or experiences of those close to them), or philosophical beliefs about people and communities. An easy starting place for this step is to ask, “What matters most to this person?” Part of our work of change is to find the answer to this question. We might know this ahead of time, or we might figure it out through our interactions. Their motivation for change might be different than yours, but it is our job to help find the common ground to create a partnership for change.  
The final step in motivating the elephant to foster self-confidence. Hope is believing a better future is possible, while self-confidence is the belief that the person can turn hope into reality. If the person does not believe they have the ability to make the change happen, their elephants are not moving. Helping the person see their power is a critical piece of the change journey. Whether working with clients or lawmakers, it is important to help the person see their ability to make positive change.

Think about a change you are trying to make (or would like to see) in your community. For those people you need to build partnerships with to make this change a reality what are the condition of their elephants and riders? If the elephant is in control, think about how you could help calm the elephant in order to get to the rider. Also think about a client who might be considering a difficult change. What impact are her/his rider and elephant playing to move the change forward or keeping the client stuck in past behaviors?

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