What do you do when there’s an elephant in the room?
We’ve all been in those situations with a friend or a colleague or a prospect or a family member where we are trying to communicate, while not addressing an issue that is between us. Maybe it was a past problem that never had closure, or a disagreement where something was said that was hurtful. It could be something that is happening in life at this present moment involving one or both of you. The point is, the “elephant in the room” or as some people like to call it “the 800 pound gorilla” is the thing that you both know is present, but neither of you are acknowledging it.
The problem with trying to ignore the elephant in the room, is just that…you have to try to ignore it, which means you aren’t ignoring it….you are absolutely paying attention to it because you are trying to ignore it! And it’s not just you. Your counterpart is trying to ignore it too.
It’s ironic that you are both pretending to be paying attention to each other…
When in fact you are actually both paying attention to the one thing you are not discussing. This makes the thing you are discussing irrelevant, because you aren’t having a true discussion about it. How could you? Neither of you are really paying attention! I’m not taking you on this merry-go-round just for fun…I want you to see how ridiculous it is to ignore the cloud that is fogging up your communication.
I am a non-confrontational person by nature, so this was a difficult thing for me to come to. For years I thought ignoring the elephant was keeping me “safe” in the conversation. Like most things in life, there is little reward in being safe. The cost of this safety was authenticity, which is critical to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships with others. If you are ignoring the elephant, the other person will judge you and consider you not completely “real” because they know about the elephant and that you are ignoring it (of course they are ignoring it too…but they won’t judge themselves the same way they judge you…they will think they are right to ignore it and have good reason to ignore it….but you can’t be trusted).
So Here’s What I Learned
As soon as you can, reach out and grab the elephant and set it on the table and say “before we talk about anything else, let’s take care of this elephant.” It’s called getting present. Whatever the issue is, immediately put it on the table and it will be out of the conversation. Then you will be able to have deeper, more meaningful time with the other person. Even if the elephant is primarily yours. In other words, maybe you are nervous or uncomfortable, or whatever, about the topic of the discussion..the other person can sense this…don’t bother trying to hide your little elephant, just park it on the table…say “I gotta tell you, this is a little uncomfortable…” or whatever you want to say. The moral of the story is never ignore the elephant.