To name the ‘elephant in the room’ is to point out a topic that is obvious to many, but one that people find scary or unwilling to confront.
We are told that robust debate is what helps new ideas to emerge. The debate approach is encouraged where each side need only point out the flaws in the other side’s arguments. Certainly this is the message our parliamentary system and media model. This approach suggests that it is more important to be clever with words and have a sharp mind and a sharp tongue, and less important to have something valuable to contribute. After all, it takes pressure and friction to make diamonds right!
There seems to be a contradiction between the need to debate, argue and ‘win the day’ and the honesty, and at times vulnerability required for deeper insights. We forget that messengers are sensitive; in fact, we rely on their sensitivity to spot the issues that need to be named.
The debate approach is laced with the implicit threat that if you want to name the elephant in the room, then ‘prepared to do battle’. Just because the elephant is big, we forget that it is sensitive too.
Leaders who encourage the debate approach risk being trapped in the rarefied air where people around you are less willing to be honest. The result is that many leaders are like the emperor with new clothes, protected by only seeing and hearing the things they want to see and hear, yet blinded by the reality they choose not to see. Dare we suggest that leaders are sensitive too?
This prompts the question – with all this sensitivity, why do we promote and perpetuate conversations that shut down the deeper honesty required for meaningful exchange and change?
There seems to be a crazy disconnect from knowing we are all imperfect and a defensiveness that seeks to ignore this same fact. If we accept that the way we learn is from people showing us our blind spots, then the fact that someone can see and name an ‘elephant’ should be celebrated and greeted with great inquiry, rather than met with derision or challenge.
Could it be that pride has a deeper hold on us than we would care to admit?
This is something to ponder on if you have ever felt the urge to shoot, deflect or reject the messenger. The next time you feel this urge, ask yourself “what am I protecting?”
But responsibility is not just with the receiver. The reality is as much as we want the emperor to change first, the reality is that change often starts with the person delivering the message.
The debate paradigm leaves everyone ‘braced for the fight’ and at times messengers lace good ideas with a tone or energy that is designed to get a defensive reaction. When someone hears you say “I’ve got an idea” but they also feel “you’re not going to like this” in your delivery, most of the time they will react to what is felt before they consider the words.
I hear some of you saying, “are we all just delicate flowers and don’t we need to toughen up?”, but I would go the other way and say we ignore people’s sensitivity at our own peril, as it is a window to true insight. The problem is we have misunderstood sensitivity for niceness.
Being nice is actually avoiding honesty, being aware of people’s sensitivity not holding back what needs be be said but saying it with care and respect to the person inside. In fact, if we say we care about a person, a project or issue, then holding back and being nice can be just as abusive as the person who is dismissive of new (or different) ideas.
Think about an insight you would like to deliver to someone …
1) What if you shared that insight with ZERO attachment to the other person/people liking it, accepting it or even listening? Are you clear about what you are protecting or projecting onto the other person?
2) What if you considered if the gap you are asking them to jump is too wide? The steps that are obvious to you, may not be so for the other person. Does it need to be broken down?
3) What if you then added a tone that reflected your interest in their wellbeing? (Wellbeing not comfort)
How have the message and/or tone changed? Its good, but of course it is not a guarantee of people agreeing with you. People have free will and some are more invested in the world being the way it is. (See #1)
Any reaction is essentially saying that the environment is not safe enough for the person you are talking to. Some of it will come from the receivers’ own life experience, some of it you can control by checking your own level of defensiveness. (See #1)
But if you get stuck, then the brave and those who truly care, have found the REAL elephant in the room. It’s not the topic but the change/learning people are scared of. Dare go there and name that, or do we have a vested interest in NOT getting too honest? It’s a crazy concept that we can get too honest.
This is not about everyone becoming a psychotherapist but about fostering a greater willingness to learn from each other.
Doing battle and debating with our intellect might be stimulating but speaking, sharing and exploring in consideration of each other’s sensitivity can change someone’s life.