We’ve all been there. Those awkward situations. Maybe at work, a big family gathering or with a group of friends. There is an undercurrent. Something that everyone knows, everyone feels…and everyone ignores. Elephants. They hunker down in the middle of a situation and make everyone do an exhausting, uneasy dance around them.

And who can blame us? Elephants are big and intimidating and threaten to trample us if we don’t keep them under control.

Ironically, the best way to get control of the elephants is to name them. We already do this to some extent. We may spend the meeting sitting in silence, not wanting to be the one to speak up, waiting in agony for it to be over. What happens after the meeting? We huddle with our “safe” group in the parking lot or by the water cooler and complain about the situation and how “someone” should do something. The elephant becomes our Voldemort, “he who must not be named.”

Why are we so afraid to speak up? Do we fear how others will reaction? Are we breaking a social contract? Maybe, but I think the biggest fear is simpler than that. I think our big fear is that whoever names the elephant will be tasked with figuring out what to do about it. Safer to stay quiet.

I facilitated a strategic planning session for a nonprofit organization a couple years ago. To set the tone for our day I started with a presentation on servant leadership. One of the things I mentioned was the importance of naming the elephants. I had some funny elephant pictures and a few jokes to lighten the tone, but the message was serious. We have to have an accurate picture of where we are before we can plan where we want to go.

Later when we broke into small groups I went to the room where we had anticipated some conflict. One woman came in and said “I have an elephant, her name is Myrtle and here it is.” Everyone immediately started laughing and the tension in the room evaporated. What followed was a remarkably productive and open minded conversation about potential changes the organization needed to make moving forward. The challenges we discussed had been lingering for years but before these leaders could make any progress they had to acknowledge that it was a conversation that needed to be had. They had to name the elephant.

I challenge you to be brave! Naming the elephants can be very productive if done correctly. As a mediator I often take it upon myself, as a neutral, to point out the thing that everyone in the room is tip toeing around. Rather than causing some sort of ugly implosion, the result is usually closer to one of relief. Once that first hurdle is cleared the next steps become less scary.

A few things to consider when there are elephants to be named:

  • Time and place: Short of a warning of impending doom, blurting out anything is generally a bad idea. Setting the stage is important. Successful communication is not based on what we say but on what our audience hears. We need to make sure the time and place is appropriate if we want our message to get through.
  • Speak with respect: People are naturally defensive. We expect the attack and throw up our guard quickly. Speaking with respect helps bring those defenses down. Speaking with respect is about creating a dialogue, not issuing an edict. Taming the elephant is a group activity and the group won’t engage if they feel disrespected.
  • Listen: Listening is the best way to show respect. When we feel heard we are more likely to listen to others. The conversation has to flow multiple ways if it is going to be effective.
  • Separate the people from the problem: Simply attaching a problem to one person is unfair. Usually there is something systematic at work that will remain even if the people in the situation change. When we address the problem as something separate from the people involved we remove the threat of blame and we invite the people to be part of the solution.

So the next time you find yourself trying to maneuver around a pesky pachyderm, consider a conscious change of course. Name your elephant in order to send it packing.