Conflict Resolution

How to Talk About the Elephant in the Room

Over the years I’ve facilitated a fair number of high-stakes conversations, and I’ve always been struck by how often people say, “You can help us by leading a discussion about the elephant in the room.” In one case, the “elephant” was worth tens of millions of dollars a year and affected the livelihood of many employees. People wanted to know what those who managed the issue were thinking, and what everyone else at the table was thinking about the issue.

But why do we avoid talking about the big issues? I think there are several answers to this question. See if these ring true for you:

  • I don’t want to offend anyone.
  • I don’t know how to talk about the elephant in the room.
  • I’m afraid of what might come up when talking about the issue.

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 don’t want to escalate conflict or break the fragile balance that may exist. But the problem is that when we fear something, we only have two choices: talk about our fears, or act on our fears in often unintentional ways. The fear of talking about something directly leads to whispered conversations, passive-aggressive behaviour, and avoidance – all of which get in the way of 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.

We’ve written about how to speak up in other blogs, but here’s a quick summary:

  1. Begin by preparing yourself to listen. Set aside your judgments and come up with a list of open-ended questions.
  2. Get your intentions in the right place What helpful reasons are there to discuss the issue for you and those that might disagree with what you have to say?
  3. Discuss facts and behaviours, focusing on data not people. Remember that it’s much easier to discuss a shared problem when we don’t mix character judgments into the conversation.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel you need it. Seek a coach who can help you, or hire a facilitator or mediator.

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. It’s the lack of communication that 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.

For more FREE resources, visit our resources page.


Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

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

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