How to Talk About the Elephant in the Room

Eric Stutzman

I’ve facilitated a fair number of high-stakes conversations over the years and am always struck when organizations ask me to lead a discussion about the elephant in the room. Rather than needing help with a conflict or to identify specific problems, they are simply asking me to start a conversation about a problem they are all aware of but can’t seem to talk about.

In one case, the shareholders of a private company had avoided talking about a major ownership issue for several years that was potentially causing them to lose ground in the market. The “elephant” that they were avoiding could have lost them tens of millions of dollars a year and would have affected the livelihood of many employees. The shareholders, who all owned different amounts of the company, were telling me privately that they wanted to know what others were thinking. As the facilitator, I knew that those with less shares were afraid of what the bigger shareholders might want, and that the bigger shareholders also wanted to know what the smaller ones were thinking. Each group had fears about bringing up the issue.

When we fear talking about something, we only have two choices: talk about our fears openly or act on them in ways that may have unintentional consequences.

So why do we sometimes avoid talking about the big issues, whether in our personal lives or at work? Why do we avoid telling an employee about a performance issue or discussing something important at our leadership meetings? Think back to a time when you did not talk about a big issue and see if these common concerns were true for you:

  • I did not want to offend anyone.
  • I did not know how to talk about the elephant in the room.
  • I was worried it would cause negative conflict.
  • I was not sure I or the other person could handle the outcome.

The first two reasons are often connected – when we have serious concerns about an issue, we fear the risk associated with talking about it. We do not want to escalate conflict or break the fragile balance that may exist in the way our relationship is currently functioning. In the instance with the shareholders, the status quo was working okay, and people feared upsetting the current balance that brought in a reasonable amount of profit.

The problem is that when we fear talking about something, we only have two choices: talk about our fears openly or act on them in ways that may have unintentional consequences. The fear of talking about something directly often leads to whispered side conversations, passive-aggressive behaviour, and avoidance – all of which get in the way of growth. We often know there is an elephant in the room because of these behaviours.

A lack of communication is what leads us to make bad decisions or inhibits our growth.

Although thinking through the potential costs of speaking up is important, we should all consider the costs of not speaking up. This often provides the motivation we need to voice our opinions. For example, if you avoid talking to an employee about a performance issue, it may affect the quality of services you offer and be a detriment to the organization. Additionally, this is unfair to the employee if they are unaware of the issue. In the case of the shareholders, not talking also meant lost opportunity – potentially millions of dollars of lost income.

When you compare the cost of bringing up an issue to that of remaining silent, you will often find that the risk of not speaking up is greater. When you realize this, it is time to act. Here are four things to remember as you prepare to talk about the elephant in the room:

1. State Your Positive Intentions.

When you begin the conversation, it is important to explain your positive intentions for bringing up the issue. This is because others will likely be fearful about discussing it. They may worry that talking about what has never been discussed will create problems. Before you start, ask yourself what positive things you hope to achieve by discussing the elephant in the room. Do you want to solve a longstanding issue? Do you want to create understanding? Then name your intention as you start the conversation.

2. Get ready to listen.

We are used to preparing ourselves to talk or even argue about big issues. But what really needs to happen when there is an elephant in the room is for everyone to understand each other before making decisions. The only way to reach understanding effectively is to prepare to listen. This means beginning the conversation by asking people open-ended questions about what they see or experience. Preparing yourself to listen also means being ready to verbally summarize what you have heard others say so that they know they have been heard and understood. When you do this, you create the conditions for them to listen to you at the same time.

3. Discuss facts and behaviours.

Remember that it is much easier to discuss a shared problem when we do not mix character judgments into the conversation. Instead of focusing on the reasons people may or may not have done things, focus on what has actually happened or is currently happening. Discuss the impact of what is happening and assume that others likely have positive intent for what they have done. If you focus on facts and behaviours, and on impact, you will create understanding and thus reduce the defensiveness of everyone involved in the conversation.

4. Ask for help if needed.

Big issues often go unaddressed for a long time. Perhaps you already tried to talk about an issue, but it did not go well which added to the fear of bringing it up again. Or maybe those within your organization are finding it difficult to get enough distance from the issue to start the conversation. When an elephant seems too big to tackle on your own, it can be helpful to hire a trained coach, facilitator, or mediator. Outside help will bring good questions to the conversation, keep track of important information, and help everyone listen to each other.

 

I have come to know that our fear of what people might say about the elephant in the room is largely misplaced. What we should rather fear is the lack of information caused by not talking. A lack of communication is what leads us to make bad decisions or inhibits our growth. So, go ahead and talk about the elephant in the room – doing so will enable you to develop deeper insights into your situation, make better decisions, and grow.


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Author: Eric Stutzman
CEO, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Eric is the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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