We’ve all heard the phrase, “the elephant in the room.” It’s defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about. Difficult situations and unpleasant experiences. a (heavy) cross to bear idiom.”
When I left my corporate job to start my leadership excellence and executive coaching business, my vice presidents gave me a beautiful glass elephant as a gift. I must have looked a bit bemused when I opened it because they said, “You know why we’re giving you this, don’t you?” I replied, “Not really. Maybe I have a good memory?” “No, because you always call out the elephant in the room, and we’re going to miss that.”
While I was very touched by the sentiment, I also realized that I hadn’t always called out the elephant in an effective manner. Just throwing an “elephant” onto the table and forcing everyone to look at it is not going to produce fruitful results. And unfortunately, that’s what I sometimes did.
I’ve learned a lot since then. This article concisely illustrates three steps to having difficult but necessary conversations.
1. Move toward — not away from — the conflict.
2. Act as if you don’t know anything about the situation, even if you do.
3. Keep quiet, especially in the beginning.
When I work with leaders who are preparing for a difficult conversation, I encourage them to adopt a mindset of curiosity instead of judgment. Enter the conversation with the attitude that you don’t know everything about the situation and are there to learn and get clarity. At some point you’ll have the opportunity to state what you feel needs to change, or set expectations etc. But by being curious from the beginning, you’ll avoid coming across as judgmental and self-righteous and will have a better chance of achieving mutual understanding and a desire to move forward.