“We avoid the things that we’re afraid of because we think there will be dire consequences if we confront them. But the truly dire consequences in our lives come from avoiding things that we need to learn about or discover.” — Shakti Gawain, American author and proponent of personal development
Jack and Jill hadn’t been getting along well for some time. Jill realized the future of her relationship with Jack hinged upon the two of them openly discussing a number of important matters, most significantly, Jack’s tendency to brush aside her concerns and avoid discussing relationship issues. Jill was adamant that both she and Jack address the elephant in the room.
“Elephant in the room” is a phrase used to describe an obvious truth that is being ignored or left unaddressed, or a problem no one wants to discuss for fear of reprisal or consequence. The elephant in the room is impossible to overlook; thus people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there are likely hoping the beast will go unmentioned or simply disappear if ignored or left undiscussed. “Elephants” are more than just sensitive topics — they are the messy stuff that people consider too dangerous to deal with directly and openly — the secrets that everyone in a family or relationships knows, but often is reluctant to discuss with anyone who can make a difference or resolve the situation. Everyone walks around acting as if all is fine.
Since no comment is ever made, all is assumed well or “settled” and the elephant goes unchallenged. When people fear that pointing out “elephants” will have consequences, most opt for silence.
Fortunately, we can learn to address “elephants” in ways that increase understanding and improve communication. While not everything needs to be laid bare, I believe there are situations — more than we’d like to acknowledge — where it is the only way to break loose from a stuck state and bring about resolution.
Before starting an “elephant” discussion first determine your intent: why do you want to point out the elephant? Who benefits? If it’s all about you, think it over. Start by setting ground rules and getting a firm commitment from each participant. Each must agree to stay open at tough moments, maintain vulnerability and respect, offer forgiveness and support, and be willing to listen, disclose, and identify feelings without acting them out — thus, no emotional outbursts, blaming, defensive posturing or name-calling.
Bear in mind, if you are leading an “elephant” discussion, it will likely be about you in some way — your thoughts, your feelings, and your behaviour. Remain open and you will learn something about your own propensity to defend and stay in denial about problems.
Check your gut — pay attention to your feelings. If you feel strongly about a particular topic, chances are someone else does too.
Check your assumptions and seek clarity. The elephant is likely in the living room due to poor communication, assumptions, and unfulfilled expectations.
Jacquelene Close Moore, author of The Thin Book of Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success, says we must be willing to ask and answer the five tough questions: What do we know? What do we not know? What can we agree upon? What do we disagree on? What do we need to do to move forward?
Says Close Moore, “The continued and complete avoidance of something gives away the very urgent necessity for, at some point, that very same thing to be discovered, delved deeply into, and actually utilized in your life. As such, the only way out of something is often to go into it . . . confront it, face it, and overcome.”
Elephants should be treated with respect and handled with care. Uncovering what people are not willing to talk about requires sensitivity. Elephant discussions ofttimes involve self-esteem, personal demons and intense feelings of anger or frustration. Given the right environment and an appropriate strategy, we can become surprisingly open about issues that may have been hidden for years. Discussing elephants takes courage and patience, along with perseverance. It may be the only way to heal a relationship and build the bridge forward.
Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.