(A version of this post was originally published here on February 12, 2018.)
Imagine that you’re walking along a path outside. As you round a bend, you see an elephant. Before you have a chance to think, his ears go up, his head drops, and he starts to charge straight at you. Your response in that moment of extremely high anxiety is crucial. What do you do when you’re faced with a stampeding elephant?
Do you remember our simple bottom line from living systems? Stay calm. Stay connected. Choose your best response based on your beliefs and values. But like so much of what you learned in LEAD 24/7, what is simple to understand is often really hard to put into practice in the moment.
In an anxious living systems, we humans stop acting thoughtfully out of our beliefs and values. Instead we react. We want to stop feeling anxious, so we do what we do in order to make the ourselves feel better in the moment, even though it’s not good for the living system in the long run. We dive into an issue too soon because we can’t sit with our own uncomfortable emotion. We distance ourselves from whatever problems exist in the system because we aren’t willing to deal with uncomfortable emotions. We overfunction or underfunction because it makes us feel better. We talk behind each other’s backs because it makes us feel better in the moment (triangulation), and we almost always “know” what the other person is thinking (projection), which allows us to justify not having some difficult conversations.
The book Switch uses an elephant as a metaphor for our emotions. You could think of the anxious responses in yourself or in others as stampeding elephants. Whenever there is anxiety in a living system, you will see a lot of stampeding elephants. I came across video below recently and immediately wanted to share it with you. It shows a seasoned safari guide responding to an actual stampeding elephant. He’s so familiar with elephants that he knows exactly how to respond. And it looks an awful lot like staying calm, staying connected, and choosing his best response based on his beliefs and values (and deep knowledge of elephants. Please don’t try this yourself the next time you encounter a random wild elephant.) The action begins at about the 30 second mark.
Our hope is that you can stay this calm and connected the next time you encounter a stampeding elephant. There are a LOT of stampeding elephants out there right now with all that is going on in the world. What a great opportunity to practice staying calm, staying connected, and choosing your response based on your beliefs and values. It’s amazing how quickly that will calm an elephant down.