Imagine that you are an explorer atop a mighty elephant trying to steer it into the wild grass of unexplored territory. You tug on the elephant’s ears and frantically yell directions at it, but the elephant simply continues down its familiar path, stopping for small bites and myriad distractions along the way. The elephant doesn’t take well to being steered.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider deftly encapsulates what psychological theorists have posited for decades and what burgeoning neuroscience confirms: your unconscious mind is your most powerful decision-driving mechanism, and it is more influenced than steered. This means your conscious mind is far more often informed of your decisions than in charge of them.
Your unconscious problem-solving process is built through your lifetime of experiences cemented into your gut by emotional markers. It is a remarkable evolutionary feature that is much older than the conscious mind itself, and it is meant to drive smart choices. If you were in a car accident on a dark street after leaving the movies, your unconscious encodes markers of aversion, fear, and hypervigilance tied to the sights, sounds, and smells of that experience: dark streets, the scent of popcorn, and blue trucks like the one that hit you. If you fell in love at college in the fall, your unconscious encodes markers of attraction, connection, and fulfillment to fallen leaves, the smell of the library, and the taste of cider. It starts in utero, continues until the day you die, and you are never aware of it while it’s happening. You spend your entire life unconsciously training the elephant.
For those of us in the business of innovation (read: helping others improve their lives), we are faced with a challenge and an opportunity: how do we leverage the heft of the mighty elephant to serve the needs of others? The trick, as it turns out, is not to steer the elephant but to consciously train it.
This is where cognitive empathy comes in. Empathy is an innate mechanism for solving the problems of others by encoding their emotions as our own experience. Once we have been inscribed with their experience, our natural problem-solving process kicks in to solve the problem as if it were our own. Empathy is natural (and virtually unpreventable) for those most salient to us: our family, our friends, our icons and heroes. When someone we are close with needs help, we automatically snap into action and get working on finding novel solutions to their problems. For those we aren’t as naturally connected with, such as our customers, our patients, our colleagues, etc., we must engage a cognitive process of building empathy in order to get their experiences encoded into our own guts. By doing so, we are using the rider of conscious cognition to train the elephant of the unconscious.
By acknowledging that our experience is distinct from that person’s, deciding to bridge that distance by allowing their experience to affect us, recognizing their feelings and emotions in ourselves, and owning our response while allowing it to encode in us, we are building that repertoire of intuition according to their needs. We are no longer making jerking pulls and tugs to try to sway the massive unconscious against its training. We are re-training the unconscious to take us somewhere new, and this becomes the core mechanism of our ongoing innovation on their behalf.
By: Justin Masterson, Master Consultant