Have you ever noticed how easy it is to avoid the “elephant in the room” because it can be uncomfortable to talk about?
In fact, we often don’t even acknowledge it for a variety of reasons.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with the things that people don’t say or are afraid to address or discuss. This is not to say that I have always been (or even now always am) someone who acknowledges the elephant in the room myself. Like many people, I get scared to bring things up sometimes.
However, when the elephant is acknowledged directly, by me or someone else, even if it’s a little awkward at first, it often creates a sense of truth, liberation, and authenticity for everyone involved.
Why Do We Avoid Talking About the Elephant in the Room?
There are a lot of reasons why we don’t like to talk about the elephant in the room. We may worry about offending someone, creating a conflict, looking bad, putting ourselves in a compromised position, upsetting others, or simply saying something we regret. The primary reason we avoid talking about things like this is fear.
Why do we get so scared to talk about the elephant in the room?
We worry that people will get angry, that it will be too uncomfortable to deal with, or that somehow it will make things worse, not better. Underneath most of these and other concerns is a bigger and more selfish concern – we usually worry that people will get mad at us or not like us if we bring up something that seems inappropriate or controversial.
However, having real freedom and operating with authenticity is sometimes about doing and saying things that are uncomfortable – i.e. talking about the elephant in the room. And, being a leader, building trust with others, and having a strong team are all predicated on our ability to be authentic.
Remember: our regrets usually have more to do with the things we don’t say and do, not the other way around.
How to Expand Your Capacity to Speak the Truth
A powerful technique we can use to expand our capacity to speak up and talk about the elephant in the room in a more effective and genuine way is one called “clearing withholds.”
This technique, which my wife Michelle and I originally learned from a coach many years ago, is one that I detail in my book Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken. I have used this technique in workshops, meetings, and coaching sessions, and have referenced it in speaking engagements.
A “withhold” is something you’ve been holding onto with another person (or group) that you haven’t shared with them – hurt, resentment, fear, an apology, opinion, an acknowledgement, an idea, or anything else (i.e. an “elephant”).
Creating the time and space to communicate these withholds is an incredibly powerful and liberating thing to do, even though it can be scary.
You can do this with your spouse, friends, family members, co-workers, or anyone else. One person goes first and says to the other person (or to one specific person if you’re doing this in a group), “There’s something I’ve withheld from you.” The other person responds by saying, “Okay, would you like to tell me?” Then the first person expresses their withhold as honestly, vulnerably, and responsibly as possible (i.e. using “I” statements, owning their feelings, etc.). The other person’s job is to listen with as much openness as possible, not to react, and to just say “thank you” when the person speaking is done.
It’s best to do this back and forth until both people (or everyone in the group) have shared all of their withholds. When you’re done, one or both of you may want to talk about some of the things that were said, but that isn’t always necessary. If you do have a follow-up discussion it’s not about defending yourself or debating, it’s about making sure you heard what they said clearly and understood it.
This whole exercise is about being able to share how you’re feeling and what you’ve been withholding as a way to release it, thus building greater connection with others.
When we practice this technique (or some variation of it) and we encourage ourselves and those around us to proactively talk about the various elephants that may be in the room, we create an environment of openness, trust, and authenticity.
Relationships and teams of all kinds can benefit greatly from addressing the elephant in the room directly and courageously. By openly discussing hard things, we enhance our communication and connection, and we often find new and creative solutions, without wasting so much energy in avoidance mode. Although this can be uncomfortable at first, it is such an important thing for us to do.
Think about the important relationships, situations, and groups in your life. What elephants have you been avoiding? What would you say if you weren’t worried about what people would think or how they would react? See if you can challenge yourself today and this week to acknowledge some of those elephants…and see what happens!
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This article was originally published in July 20009 and updated for 2023.