Talking to the elephant - Veterinary Practice
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Talking to the elephant

Chris Whipp continues his article on attention spans with a look at techniques that can be used to build, develop and control attention – but warns not to expect too much too soon.

LAST month we looked at how
developing and managing the
attention may be the next major
business advantage of the 21st
century as we come to terms with
a new and challenging business

We used
the analogy
from Jonathan
Haidt’s book
The Happiness
represent the
relatively small
prefrontal cortex (PFC), the seat of
conscious thought and control, and
the non-conscious brain which is
influenced by gut feelings, intuition,
emotions and unconscious drives.

Influenced by our genes, our early
upbringing, our education and our
experience, the elephant is both large
and strong and potentially out of
control for more of the time than we
might wish to admit.

Developing a better relationship
between the two can increase
efficiency, improve performance, give
a greater sense of autonomy and get
better results.

Paying attention is easier when we
are internally motivated and harder
when we are not. In an appropriate
situation we may maintain almost
effortless attention for extended
periods of time, a state often called

Forcing ourselves to maintain
attention when not motivated is much
more difficult but it is a skill that can
be learned and developed.

Julie Dickson, in her book Talk to the
, nicely summarises the roles
and interplay of the two parts of the
brain when she says: “The rider part
of your brain is the rational, Mr Spock,
control-your-impulses, plan-for-the-
future brain. Your rider tells you all
sorts of useful things that you know will provide long-term benefit: ‘If I
exercise now, I’ll have more energy

“The elephant, on the other hand, is
your attracted-to-shiny-objects brain.
It is your what-the-hell, go-with-what-feels-right part of the brain. It’s drawn
to things that are novel, pleasurable,
comfortable or familiar.”

Knowing that we can improve and
control the dialogue is one thing,
actually doing it is quite another and
here we look at some techniques
that can be used to build, develop
and control attention. It should be
remembered that working with our
subconscious habits takes time and
practice and it is important not to
expect too much too soon.

It is also important to remember
that cognitive resources of memory,
focus and control are both nite and
interrelated. As with management, you
may be able to force the elephant to
go where you want it to for a while but
only so long.

This was nicely demonstrated by
a simple study at the University of
Minnesota in the late nineties. Two
cohorts of participants were asked to
memorise either a two-digit or a seven-
digit number.

After time had elapsed they repeated
the number back, then received a
reward – either a fruit salad or a gooey
chocolate cake. Interestingly, of the
cohort with the greater memory task
(seven numbers), twice as many chose
the indulgent chocolate cake. We
should endeavour not to overestimate
our abilities.

Here are some techniques to keep
the elephant interested and attentive:


The elephant is a creature that lives
for now and quite happy leaving the
responsibility for worrying about the
future to the PFC. Focus therefore
on the here and now when you want
to get the attention and only focus
forwards once both halves of the brain
are engaged.

Show, don’t tell

It is perfectly possible to have an
intelligent rational discussion with
a client but compliance may still be
pathetic. The elephant needs to see
and feel the importance within the immediacy of the moment. Use
visuals, action and dialogue to
attract and keep attention.


Tell a good story, giving it
good structure and direction.
The human mind is wired for
stories and they are central to
our cultural memory. If the
story is good, the attention will
be retained until you get to the
end. Providing the opportunity
to participate in the story can
enhance autonomy, bolster
perseverance and motivation.
Make the story both inciting
and exciting.


We are, by nature, problem-
solvers. By providing interesting
dilemmas we can gain interest, draw
attention and motivate individuals to find solutions.

The type of dilemma is critical.
The mind is happy grappling with
a problem and the key is directing
it to a problem that will lead to a
clear, positive result rather than just
being fun to do or

It’s a little like time
management where
we might classify
what we do into just two categories;
“Doing something
useful” v. “Passing
the time until we


Surprise can be a
very effective way of
both capturing the
attention and building memories. There
is lots of research into rewards and
bonus schemes and there is no doubt
that there is a greater activation of
anticipation and rewards centres in the
brain when the reward is unexpected.

Rewards are nice but when they
become habitual their effect on
attention and performance is limited.
Keep things fresh and provide
surprises to gain, maintain and regain

Leave gaps

When working with staff and others,
leave gaps in the information you give
them. Humans inherently seek meaning
and practice pattern recognition. Gaps
can intrinsically motivate staff to try to ll them, thereby driving attention and

George Loewenstein (professor of
economics and psychology) describes curiosity as: “Arising when attention
becomes focused on a gap in one’s

Create dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is that feeling
that there is something not quite right
about the way you see the world. As with gaps, it grabs
the attention and
holds it as you try to
reconcile what you
know with what you

stepping outside of
your comfort zone
or moving other
people outside of
their comfort zone
can be great for the
attention but care
is needed otherwise
the more primitive areas of the brain (amygdala) can go
into overload. This has the opposite
effect, impairing cognition, attention
and memory.

Visceral experience

In a world preoccupied with
abstractions, the attention can be
drawn by real, tangible messages with
a significant emotional component.
Many messages are focused on the
intellectual processing of the PFC
when talking to the elephant directly
via the emotions and the subconscious
can be far more effective.

If you can engage the attention of
the elephant as well as the rider, it is
possible to attract, apply and maintain
the attention relatively effortlessly. If
not, you can drive the elephant only a
short distance or time before he rebels.

For more details, contact

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