Wednesday, 6 April 2011

E is for the Elephant in the room

I’ve been to many client meetings in my time; as well as copious internal team meetings. I’ve also been to family-style meetings for different reasons. But I’ve never been to a ‘meeting’ with friends.
Interesting or obvious?!

What’s the missing link?

The Elephant in the room. 

If you think about the first three scenarios, meeting a client, team member or family, everyone has their own agenda. Each party comes with a set of assumptions, ideals and objectives that could be very different to the person sitting next to them. There are definitely a few elephants in the room. 

What does that mean? Elephants in the room are all the things ‘not being talked about’. The situations where everyone nods in silent compliance, meanwhile a missile-fire of objections and ulterior arguments are whizzing round inside their heads, threatening to burst out through their ears in a shower of fury or fireworks. It’s the situation where everyone agrees with what the boss has just said; but will go straight home and rant about it to their partner. 

In these situations, truly great leaders will stand up and be counted. They will offer their honest views, even if they’re unpopular with the masses. They will stand up to what they believe in and be willing to be pushed and probed on that. Often, once they’ve aired an alternative view, other people will have the confidence to admit their own questions or reservations. 

So why doesn’t this happen with friends? Well, potentially it does, depending on your group. But for me and my friends, I think we’ve all grown up being entirely honest with each other. Often far too honest! If you’re feeling angry, you’ll tell people about it and you’ll explain exactly why. Unhappy about something someone did? You confront them and sort it out. Excited about possible changes in your life? You go straight to them to spill the beans, because they always give the right response. 

There’s no elephant in the room when you’re being entirely honest, and as Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler (2002) discuss in their book ‘Crucial conversations’, this dialogue is the key to personal and organisational success. Crucial conversations not only help you to confront things that are going wrong. They enable you to get further, perform better and feel happier as a result. In fact, the authors even claim a wealth of health benefits that can be reaped by being honest through dialogue. 

So how can we all have the confidence to stand up and lead the room? To be honest and forthright, even when we’re coming from an opposing side? What else is important to know?

The authors of ‘Crucial conversations’ recommend four critical steps:
  1. Start with heart
    Work out what you want. Before going to any meeting, whoever it’s with, spend some time understanding your own motivations, assumptions and goals. You’ll be at a huge advantage if you can demonstrate with credibility that you have a clear perspective and purpose. 
  2. Make it safe and master your stories
    Take an agreed ‘time out’ when things are getting tough. Then step back in together, being aware of the need for dialogue. And when you’re telling your story, separate facts from feelings. Facts are indisputable. Feelings are understandable and totally within your control. [More on that later...] 
  3. State your path, and explore the paths of others’
    The key to dialogue is sharing your perspective (facts first, then feelings) and then asking openly to hear other people’s views. By putting your own views out there, you’re guiding the direction of the dialogue. By opening the path for others, you’re encouraging total honesty. 
  4. Move to action
    Finally, the trick is being able to turn dialogue into positive action. A few options: You could guide the process and direct next steps. You could ask for a vote. You could aim to reach a consensus. Or you could allow for reflection and book in time to revisit the decision at a later date. Whichever method you choose, assign actions and follow up on progress regularly.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting, follow these steps and see what positive outcomes you get. 

And watch out for stray Elephants. If you spot it, call it!


  1. Great topic!
    I'm a new follower from the A-Z challenge. Nice to meet you! :)

  2. I love this! No wonder I do:

  3. what a thought provoking post. This also applies to writing group meetings, i think. :P

  4. love this post. And I love the meaning of elephants in the room.. so apt.

  5. Thanks for the information! I'll see if it'll be useful the next time :)

    Following you from A-Z challenge!

  6. Thanks for the post and all that research! Nice to meet you through the A-Z challenge!

  7. I have found this post very interesting, and helpful, although I don't attend any meeting now since I am starting my own business from home as a jewelery designer,but I have worked for different companies in the past and I know what meetings with the boss means.
    I have found very helpful your quote that the key to dialogue is sharing your perspective (facts first, then feelings. I will try and do it this way next time I have a discussion or i need to stand up for myself.
    Thank you.
    By the way I am having a giveaway to celebrate the opening of my new store on line. It is open until Tuesday.

  8. I love the Elephant in the room cards how brilliant! Thanks for your comments and good luck.

    Let me know if you have success using this process.