The Elephant in the Room

The expression “elephant in the room” means a big issue everyone is aware of, but which is being ignored, because everybody finds discussion about it uncomfortable. The rationale behind it is that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook, but people in the room can nevertheless choose to behave as if the elephant was non-existent.

A natural consequence of undiscussables in a culture is that fresh viewpoints get deflected, or even smothered. That’s contrary to the whole purpose of dialogue, and dangerous for any organization interested in vitality and achievement.

An old proverb says that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. Naming and taming the elephant is a metaphor for making implicit issues explicit. Until the elephant’s presence is made explicit —plain, clear, straightforward, obvious— the quality of true dialogue is limited.

You have to raise the issue yourself to get the group unstuck. Then ask people to explain in detail the nature of the problem, issue, or opportunity. Find out how long it has existed, who is involved, and what the consequences are.

Thank people who bring up controversial or different viewpoints. And let everyone know how important it is to raise all options, concerns, and issues, even if they are difficult. Once people know you won’t kill the messenger, they’ll feel safer tackling thorny subjects.

Summing-up: To tame an elephant —an “undiscussable”— you must first acknowledge its existence. Then, the key to eliminating the elephant is to accurately assess the situation without prejudice or bias.

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