Many leaders have been in a situation where there was a proverbial elephant in the room. In the workplace, the default course of action is to tiptoe around the elephant. Anxious about a potential confrontation, leaders are often afraid they’ll be misunderstood or perhaps worried that they’ll somehow make the situation worse by speaking up.
The situation reaches a head when the pain of ignoring the elephant outweighs the pain of freeing it. The elephant can no longer be ignored. When this happens, business leaders decide to take action in the hope that, by addressing it, the tension can be released and the situation can start to improve.
According to Sarah Noll Wilson, this is when they tend to make common (and costly) mistakes.
“Many people think the best way to free an elephant is to call it out,” Wilson said. “They come in, guns blazing, determined to deal with the elephant once and for all. Unfortunately, this isn’t the most effective way to address an issue that’s lingered for a while.”
Wilson would know, as she’s been freeing captive elephants for over 15 years as an executive coach and leadership development consultant who’s helped companies like Wells Fargo, Principal, and ITA Group. Wilson is an adjunct professor at Drake University and an author, and in her book Don’t Feed the Elephants!, she details the traps business owners and leaders fall into when dealing with the issues that leave their meeting rooms a swirling mess of tension, heaviness and anxiety.
The next time you find yourself confronted with an elephant that needs to be freed, look out for three common traps and employ a two-part solution to avoid falling into them.
Trap one: being overly aggressive
Wilson explained that if professionals are avoiding addressing a problem that everyone knows is there, the emotional heat is already cranked up pretty high. Instead of having already talked about whatever is troubling them, they’re tense and on edge. In this sort of environment, it’s highly unlikely that a confrontational approach will resolve the situation.
Wilson said you’ll likely get one type of reaction or another with this approach. “The other person will either respond to your aggression with their own anger, or shut down and acquiesce just to get you to go away,” Wilson said. “In both instances, nothing is solved.”
Wilson added that if you tend to have an aggressive approach, prior experiences may lead you to believe that every conversation about a difficult topic will turn into a battle. If that’s your experience, the thought of another battle can make you avoid engaging altogether.
Trap two: not being clear about boundaries
Another common trap is not being clear about your non-negotiables. “You have to set clear boundaries if you want to free an elephant,” she said. If you tend to be more agreeable and dismiss your own needs, it can cause major problems.
“There are times when I’m really clear and hold steady, and there are times when I pretend everything is fine even when it isn’t,” Wilson admitted. “If you dismiss what you need, you can end up exploding because you’re not able to stuff your feelings down anymore.”
When you do this, it can catch the person you explode on off-guard. After all, Wilson explained, “you’ve spent time convincing yourself and everyone around you that things are fine. So when you explode on this unwitting party, their defenses go up and they may lash out at you in an attempt to defend themselves.” This results in unnecessary tension and pain.
Trap three: assuming your reality is right
Even if you’re not overly aggressive or overly passive, you may fall into the trap of considering the situation through your own lens. To show you what this can look like, Wilson invites you to consider the following scenario. “You have a coworker you feel talks down to you, and when you muster up the courage to address this, something unexpected happens.”
Instead of a confrontation, your coworker opens up about their struggles and experiences. “You come to find out that they feel undervalued, and so they try to assert their own importance without considering how it’s coming across to you.” You find out their behavior has nothing to do with you at all, and they aren’t even aware of how you’ve felt during your interactions with them.
“Step back and look at things from their perspective,” Wilson said. “Otherwise, you may feel like they are dismissing your needs and your experience, which creates a barrier to resolution.”
In the day-to-day challenges we face with team members, it can be easy to assume that everything you feel, think and want is right. Unfortunately, when holding that mindset, Wilson explained that we don’t stop to think about what the other person is thinking, feeling or wanting. When that happens, it can negatively impact how we approach the situation.
Solution one: approach with curiosity
Wilson said that while we all struggle with these pitfalls, we can learn to avoid them. The first part of her proposed solution is summed up with the phrase, “be curious, not furious.”
Before you approach someone to talk through a tough situation, think about what their experience might be. Wilson has seen that getting curious is a great way to let go of your anger, set aside your righteousness and engage productively with other people.
“Bringing a sense of curiosity and experimentation to the conversation can help you identify different ways to engage with the other person so that you reach them,” Wilson said.
To be constructively curious, Wilson advised asking yourself some questions. Will the other person benefit from a soft initial approach? Will they respond better if you’re straightforward right from the beginning? Thinking about what they might need, along with figuring out what you Need, will help you release frustration, set boundaries and stay empathetic.
Solution two: give each other space
The second part of Wilson’s solution is to give the situation (and each other) some space if necessary. “Even with the right approach, you can’t always free the elephant in the room with a single conversation. It may require do-overs, revisits and time for reflection and healing.” If you or the other person are triggered during the conversation, you won’t be able to think rationally and things can quickly escalate into a confrontation, so don’t be afraid to step away.
“Before you go into a situation you know may get heated, think about the strategies you can use if things escalate,” Wilson said, “and come up with an strategy exit.” Be inquisitive about the different ways that things might go, and come up with ideas for handling those scenarios. It also helps to have a clear goal in mind before engaging the other person.
“Going into a conversation that might be emotionally charged, be really clear about the impact you want to make,” Wilson advised. “At the same time, you can’t fully control whether that goal is achieved. The other person has to decide the impact of the conversation on them, too.”
Reflect, adapt and move forward
At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try, Wilson said, “We aren’t going to handle every single tough conversation that comes up perfectly.” We’ll get stuck in the trap of not setting boundaries, go in thinking we’re right or approach the situation as a confrontation.
“Give yourself some grace,” she shared. “Expecting perfection is unrealistic. However, we can take steps to get better by reflecting on a situation that didn’t go the way we hoped, getting curious about what happened and understanding what traps we fell into.”
Sometimes, leaders may be able to come back and apologise, or ask the other person for a reset. Other times, they may only be able to apply what they learned to the next elephant they try to free. Either way, they can build self-awareness with the goal of improving and being more intentional, thus avoiding the traps in the future.