Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room…

While last week’s attack on The Capitol was still taking place, writer Saladin Ahmed – whose work I admire – tweeted “next week some middle aged white man is still gonna get paid for a column about how we need to build bridges.” Mr. Ahmed doesn’t know me, but as a middle aged white man with a business titled Building Bridges Leadership, that comment has been on my mind ever since. But a comment that others have made – in many different wordings – has resonated with me more strongly: If you try to heal a wound without first cleaning it out, it will almost certainly get infected.

The work of building authentic community doesn’t come from simply moving past challenging topics because time is limited or because they’re painful to address. If not addressed and dealt with, these issues – the elephant in the room – can cause chaos and destruction. Like poison ivy, they can spread strong systemic roots, making these issues much harder to deal with. So building authentic community must involve addressing challenging topics openly.

But there’s a reason we often don’t address the elephant in the room. It is uncomfortable. Addressing it may not go well. Strong emotions can come up on all sides. On a national level this week, we can see politicians on both side of the aisle digging in to their positions regarding a second presidential impeachment. But on a more micro level, you may be dealing with challenging relational situations also. How often have you found yourself caught up in emotions of defensiveness or anger, and later looked back with regret at how you handled it? How often have you left an emotionally charged situation feeling hurt, or perhaps hurting someone else?

What can we do to address the elephant in the room productively this week? 

This Week’s Tips:

Practice! If you know there’s an emotionally-charged conversation coming up for you – at work or even in your personal life – find someone you trust to role-play the conversation with. You can try the same conversation as many times and in as many ways as you’d like to build your own confidence and comfort level for the real conversation. As you do so:

  1. Notice the emotions that come up for you. Be aware of them, and consider that while they are there, they do not have to dictate your actions or words. It may even be helpful during practice role-plays to name/write down the emotions that come up on scraps of paper, then fold up the paper scraps and put them away somewhere out of sight as you role-play that conversation again.
  2. Stay curious. Ask open-ended questions to seek understanding, and rephrase what you hear, to make sure you understand the other person and that they feel listened to by you.
  3. Advocate. Be clear about what you would like to see happen next – whether these are actions you will take or actions you would like the other person to take.

Now practice regularly! Use fabricated scenarios to try out. The more you and a partner practice difficult conversations, the more adept and comfortable you’ll be when they happen in real life.

It takes courage to have the conversations needed to address these elephants, but we all probably know leaders we respect because they were able to do just that. If the big elephant seems out of reach this week, start with the baby elephant and work up. Build some confidence in your ability to enter in to those conversations and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group so others can be encouraged too.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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