Elephant In The Room: What To Do

There is a certain expression that comes across a person's face when
they get a question leading to an elephant in the room. A certain body
language. A tone of voice.

If you watch closely, that expression and the follow-on reaction looks
and sounds roughly like this:

1. The body freezes, particularly shoulders and head.

2. The eyeballs dart sideways or down.

3. There is a pause as the person being questioned buys time to decide
how to answer and to settle themselves down to look comfortable again.

4. There is a comment about how the questioner is "blunt" (or perhaps
a laugh, as if to say, "very good," or the opposite, anger at their

5. There is an answer that is either honest (usually coupled with a
laugh and/or compliment at the acuity of the question) or evasive
(usually coupled with "I need to find out more information," or "That
is not my department," or you get a vague answer, or part of an
answer), or misleading, or a lie.

If you are a communicator it is your job to get to the truth. Usually
when there is little information available, or you have to piece
together bits of information from here and there. A critical part of
gathering that information is asking questions, and not in a slavishly
flattering way but in a way that gets you to an answer.

Inevitably questions lead to elephants. So you have to know what to
do. How to recognize them, how to handle them, and most importantly
that you have choices.

Typically communicators have the following kinds of reactions to the
elephant, once they discover it:

1. Glee - as in "gotcha," a combination of relief at having gotten
somewhere; satisfaction that they were asking the right questions;
knowing that they are now equipped to move forward with a
communication plan.

2. Dread - as in "oh s**t, now what do I do?" because the elephant is
difficult to deal with.

3. Denial - as in "I don't see any elephants," because they want to
CYA and not have trouble in their lives.

None of these emotions are productive. In fact they get in the way.

The first one is egotistical - "You see I'm so great!" - and it
distracts you from your focus, which should be on serving the

The second and third go hand in hand - they bias you toward not seeing
the truth. If you don't see the truth you can't communicate, because
people can smell a lie and will immediately disregard what you are

So let's say you've discovered an elephant and conquered your
emotions. What next?

The important thing to do is to recognize that you have choices.
Essentially they boil down to:

1. Ignore the elephant - if the timing is bad, if there is a lack of
support for moving forward to confront it, if it wouldn't serve the

2. Discuss the elephant directly with the customer and explore options
for responding to it.

3. Discuss the elephant, but not with the customer, and decide to work
around it.

Every person and every organization has elephants, because life is
messy. Sorry, that's just how it is.

Without elephants, you wouldn't need communicators.

The important thing for professionals, as we confront these
situations, is not to be surprised by elephants but rather to look at
them as part of the natural habitat. And then to calmly work to
address them - or not.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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