English: Elephant in the room

English: Elephant in the room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an elephant in the room and nobody is acknowledging it. How is that possible?

If it is an actual living elephant, chances are we might be surprised but not uncomfotable speaking about it.

When the “elephant in the room” is something we aren’t talking about which those present are aware of there is often discomfort. It might be a family secret,it might be a health issue, it might be a personal issue, it might be something embarrassing. It might hurt someone to speak about the elephant.

Randy Pausch recommended “When there’s an elephant in the room introduce him.” Let’s be honest, that can feel a little like walking barefoot on broken glass. How do we handle the elephant in the room?

There are times that elephant in the room needs to be ignored:

  • The emotions surrounding the elephant are very strong. Seek professional help before pushing this one out.
  • There isn’t much time for conversation. Elephants are big and need lots of time to explore. Wait until you can (and others) can set aside time.

There are times that elephant in the room needs to be address:

  • The elephant is creating discomfort. Discomfort that needs resolved for you to be able to do something. For example, a small elephant might be a person who is generally nice said something that made you angry. Let them know when you are in private. It could be they are unaware how you took their words or were just having a bad day.
  • The elephant is blocking access. If you have an issue that makes it difficult to be civil with someone (for example divorced parents), work at modify the elephant so things can still happen.

How do you create space for talking about the elephant?

1. Set aside time for a real conversation. If it is an elephant, it needs more than a couple minutes.

2. Hold the conversation in an appropriate, safe place. If someone is driving, it is likely a poor choice for elephant conversations. Wait until you can see each other’s response. If you feel a professional or a moderator would be helpful, arrange one.

3. Acknowledge the discomfort. The other person may feel other emotions. Sharing ours creates space for conversation. And, sometimes the emotion is what makes it a big elephant.

4. Listen. Really listen. Don’t interrupt. When they finish speaking share what you understood. Ask them to do the same.

5. Remember, the way to eat an elephant is a bite at a time. Often it is best to address a portion of the issue. It might turn out this elephant is full of hot air and that tiny piece deflates the elephant.

6. Get people thinking about elephants in the room through other creative means. For me that means songs. That might be a song that has the theme surrounding an issue. It might be a song that creates a safe space. Here are a few elephant songs just in case you want a general “Elephant in the room” conversation or to share about elephants in general:

  • “Baby Elephant Walk”
  • I Want an Elephant for Christmas” 
  • When I See an Elephant Fly”  
  • One Elephant Went Out to Play”  
  • If You Should Meet an Elephant“. 
  • “Nellie the Elephant”
  • “Miss Mary Mack”
  • “Pink Elephants on Parade”
  • “The Animal Fair”

 *A big THANK YOU to the Facebook and Twitter contributors of this list.

September 21st is Elephant Appreciation Day. Let’s acknowledge that elephant with some fun songs and a little conversation – about elephants or elephants in the room. You decide which.

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6 thoughts on “There’s an elephant in the room

  • 28 September, 2012 at 9:10 am
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    Hi JoAnn,
    Good advice about the benefits of getting secrets out in the open and start communicating effectively. I specially like that you empathize the listening part.
    A question: How do you use song in a family setting for instance to promote talking about the elephant in the room?
    irenesavarese recently posted..Dealing With Anger As A TeamMy Profile

    • 28 September, 2012 at 9:15 am
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      In a family setting, it may require a little planning but it can be done. Depending on who is involved, know some music that person enjoys. See if there are lyrics that maybe touch on a related issue. Or, (as I often do with my teen) ask what they think a song they are actively listening to is about. Following up with questions (do you ever feel that way, has that ever happened, have you ever witnessed, etc.) can let you get at that elephant.

  • 28 September, 2012 at 2:37 pm
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    JoAnn,

    I actually love this post–even if I am late in commenting. So much of therapy is about inviting the elephant into the conversation. I appreciated your thoughtful list of things to remember–and now I have, “If I see an elephant fly” stuck in my head. :)

    Warmly,
    Ann

    • 28 September, 2012 at 3:30 pm
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      It is nice to know elephants can make use smile (even if it is in a silly song.) You are so right – much of therapy is dealing with elephants.

    • 29 September, 2012 at 2:17 pm
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      There is a lot we don’t enjoy facing or discussing. Sometimes it needs a little acknowledging nudge.

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