One of the limiting fears around talking about the elephant in the room with others is the worry that we’ll make a bigger mess if we bring up the subject. That could happen if you don’t prepare ahead of time to communicate clearly, and sometimes even when we do.
Most of the conversations we start won’t have all parties involved committed to showing up with curiosity, candor, and compassion. What then?
Here are four remarkable reasons you avoid uncomfortable conversations.
You prepare for conflict instead of conversation.
Think about when you need to have a challenging but essential conversation. Was your heart racing? Did you go through all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios? Have you ever felt silly when a conversation you’d dreaded wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected it to be?
I know my brain starts to slip into defensive mode when preparing for a challenging conversation. The idea of potential conflict can trigger our brain to imagine all the possible ways the other parties in the conversation could negatively respond. I can feel it happening.
Our brain is wired to scan the environment for threats.
We tend to approach sensitive moments as if we’re preparing for battle, because anticipating conflict sets us up for survival. But bracing for a competition can cause us to avoid a tough conversation altogether. Or, if we go into that conversation already on the defensive, we risk triggering the other person’s defense responses and escalating our own, potentially creating conflict where we could’ve created cooperation instead.
You might not be able to stop the stress responses, but you can work to slow them down by noticing, acknowledging, and being present with them—my heart races when I speak and stand with courage. Instead of fighting it, I work to feel it.
First, I check in with myself physically, acknowledging my physical sensations and accepting them as messages that my amygdala is triggered. When I notice this and name it, I’m reminded that I cannot control my biology. Though this isn’t overly comfortable, it does make these feelings easier. Being more accepting of myself than adversarial helps me in these situations.
If you aren’t in a place to continue your curiosity about yourself, the other person, and the situation, you shouldn’t have a conversation.
We’ve already lost when we start from a place of win/lose.
You oversimplify complex issues.
We are prone to looking for a solution when there may be many. In the search for that single perfect fix, we may oversimplify the situation, failing to realize the dynamics we’re dealing with are complicated.
Oversimplifying complex issues leads to band-aid solutions. For example, if engagement scores are low, a company might decide to give everyone free lunches. Free lunches could cause a temporary morale boost, but it’s a band-aid that ignores the intricate root system of the problem. Unless the root issues were about lunch, to begin with, the free lunches wouldn’t solve it.
In his book “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why your Future Depends on It,” Ian Leslie discusses how we tend to approach relationship and communication challenges as if we can solve them like a crossword puzzle, with only one set of words to fit the boxes. He advocates that viewing these challenges as a mystery is more productive because when we approach a mystery, we immediately accept that there are complexities and possibilities to be explored.
I worked with a team that was struggling with trust issues. The senior leader, Terry, was technically competent and knowledgeable about the business, but often verbally abusive. A brilliant jerk. Terry’s behavior created an environment that wasn’t psychologically safe for his team or anyone who worked with him. Turnover and complaints to HR continued to increase. The company sent Terry to a class on effective communication to solve the problem. This course of action is typical in corporate environments. When there’s access to training, sometimes training becomes the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. However, a three-hour communication workshop was unlikely to change Terry’s behavior and the issues of trust it created.
That’s not to say that a three-hour communications workshop isn’t always helpful. After exploring underlying issues and motivations, a workshop could be an effective way to introduce skill building of critical communications and trust concepts and deepen self-reflection, but sending someone to a lunch-and-learn isn’t a fix-all for complicated issues.
In this situation, for example, it could be easy to oversimplify and say the issue was with Terry. But what was also true is that he worked at this company for decades and was promoted. Leadership did not take action until formal complaints were made. What was it about the culture that tolerated this behavior? What changed to cause the administration to take action? What were competing commitments at play that not only approved of this behavior but rewarded it? What do we need to create to ensure this behavior doesn’t emerge again?
You falsely think your viewpoint is the only correct one.
We all show up in the world in ways that make sense to us. Often, we only look at the elephant through our lens, without considering the other person’s point of view—because doing so means we have to give ourselves space to be wrong. (Let’s give ourselves permission: Say it with me, we are allowed to be wrong!) If you have a conflict but haven’t asked yourself the question, “What makes sense to the other person?” you’re falling into this trap.
We get so focused on our perspective and needs that we don’t often take the time to consider what the situation means for the other person. When we only look through our lens, we limit what might be possible.
You believe that if you bring up a problem, you have to be the one to solve it.
People have shared that they hold back on addressing an elephant, because while they can see the issue, they aren’t sure what to do about it.
We’ve all heard the maxim, “If you bring me problems, you better bring me solutions.” I worked for many people who said this and have repeated it myself. What I have come to see is that sometimes what we have to offer our team is a clear-eyed view of the problem, and providing our perspective is what opens the conversation for someone else to bring a solution to the table.
Bringing up a problem doesn’t give you ownership over the solution. It’s unlikely that one person owns the entirety of the problem and could therefore bring a whole, workable solution independently. This traditional belief of only bringing me problems you have answers for is limiting at best and can have destructive consequences at worst.
When we recognize that there’s an elephant, our first job is to shine a light in that direction so you and your team can start exploring together. If we are dealing with an elephant, there isn’t likely a quick fix. If there was, we might not be in this situation. We can solve some cases with quick fixes with our current authority and expertise. But so often, elephants emerge from the system. When the problem lies in the design, it requires the system to be part of the solution.
The desire to seek certainty and simplicity is vital in our work cultures. When we are dealing with humans, there will always be uncertainty. When we are met with complex situations, people aren’t always prepared for how to navigate them. Consider the COVID pandemic: everything is in a state of disruption, and there is often no obvious path forward. The leaders who sought certainty consistently struggled with the chaos.