The undiscussables: How to address the elephant in the room

Every organization has elephants -- a known problem or situation viewed as undiscussable. The elephant in the room is difficult to address for various reasons, including power structures and cultural issues.

To put it into context; employees don’t speak up because they perceive a lack of psychological safety within the organization.

Two examples:

  • Bill thinks his boss, Doug, is unfair. Bill sees other employees getting much better assignments. Bill talks about the issue with other co-workers, who are also resentful, but none of them discusses the issue with the one person who can actually change the situation -- the boss. It’s difficult for an employee to talk to a boss about the boss’ performance. The underlying issues here are power structures and psychological safety.
  • Katheryn, the director of nursing, knows that one of her top nurses, Bobbi, is viewed by others as a bully. Other nurses feel intimidated in Bobbi’s presence. Katheryn sees the problem as undiscussable because the hospital is already short-staffed and Bobbi is a star performer. What if Bobbi quits? The issue here is fear of loss.

No matter what the reason for avoiding conversations, a toolbox of skills can help make the undiscussable a bit more discussable. These tools can help you address the elephants in the room so that you can get back to the business of serving your patients, clients or customers.

1. Get out of your head

When you’re in an undiscussable conflict, the tendency is to stay in your own head. You ruminate about what he or she might say and what outcome might happen if you bring up the sensitive subject. The first step is to get out of your head.

Here’s how: Set an appointment with the other person. Say something like, “Doug, I would like to schedule a 15 minute private appointment on Thursday at 2.” Now that you’ve made the commitment, you are one step toward a resolution.

2. Get out of the story

When we ruminate, we start creating stories to fill in the gaps of the unknown. We judge the other person’s intention. For example when Kim rolls her eyes at you in a meeting, her boss builds a story about Kim’s intentions. When the behavior is ignored, an elephant emerges -- an undiscussable. The story must die in favor of the facts.

Here’s how: Use curiosity to uncover motives. “Kim, I noticed that you just rolled your eyes when I brought up the new rotation. Walk me through what’s going on for you…” Then, breathe and allow Kim to deny, debate, or defend. It doesn’t matter what Kim does. The fact is you addressed the elephant. Instead of making up your own story about Kim’s behavior, you just made the undiscussable discussable and promoted accountability instead of avoidance.

3. Own your stuff

Here’s where you get the chance to explain your experience about the situation. With this technique, you expose the other person to your feelings and perceptions -- not to manipulate them, but to promote understanding. When you own the part you have played in the problem, you give a little grace to the other person, who can see you more as a partner than an adversary. 

Here’s how: “Kim, when you roll your eyes, I feel disrespected. And by the way Kim, I’m sorry that I haven’t said something sooner, because that’s not fair to you. I don’t want to call this out in a meeting in front of everyone else. When you disagree, I’d prefer to hear your point of view rather than have to guess at what you feel.”

Kim may deny or defend, but I guarantee that because the elephant has been exposed, Kim’s behavior is likely to shift.

4. Set a positive intention

An intention is your north star guiding you toward an end result. The intention to understand is different from the intention to reprimand. An intention to course-correct behavior is distinct from the intention to punish. Clean up any negative energy before engaging in a difficult conversation and get crystal-clear about your end game before you engage in the conversation.

Here’s how: "Bobbi, my intention for meeting with you is to offer some coaching that will elevate your leadership." Now Bobbi knows why you asked to meet with her and everything you say needs to be aligned with helping Bobbi. Even when the feedback stings a bit, people usually “feel” the positive intention and will take your message to heart.

Conclusion

These techniques are not meant to be a step-by-step blueprint. However, practicing these tools in combination with your own skills can assist you as you strive to bring the undiscussable into a positive dialogue.

 

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018).  Download "The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results." Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at MarleneChism.com.

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