September 27, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
Sometimes, a group will get stuck until someone is willing to name the “elephant in the room:” the uncomfortable topic that everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about.
That topic can be about content or about how the group is working (or not working) together. Fear of conflict or unpleasant interactions often leads us to avoid sensitive topics or to beat around the bush so much that no one gets our message. Some of the most powerful contributions to teamwork involve the willingness to express uncomfortable truths.
You enhance your abilities to discuss the undiscussable when you:
Attend to process and content. You won’t recognize that the group is stuck unless you keep an eye on how the group is going about its work and on its progress.
Use yourself as a barometer. Use those knotty feelings in the pit of your stomach as a red flag that something’s off. Step back and ask yourself why the feeling?
Build in periodic reflections. Leadership guru Ronald Heifetz calls this “getting to the balcony:” stepping out of the fray on the dance floor and giving yourself a different perspective on the action. You’ll give yourself a better chance of seeing the big picture.
Search carefully for the elephant. This requires three things: (1) determining the obvious truth being ignored or unaddressed, (2) figuring out how to present the information so that others can hear and test your observation, and (3) determining when naming the issue will be most helpful to the group’s progress. [Review the last post on skilled candor: those skills can help here.]
Avoid the sledgehammer. It can be easier naming the elephant with a less direct route. Humor, a well-formed question, or using yourself – expressing your uncertainty or lack of clarity as a way of engaging others in an exploration they might be hesitant to initiate — can accomplish the task with grace.
Frame the elephant in a larger story. Explain not only what you see but why discussing it can help the group make progress. You may see this more clearly than others.