How to talk about the elephant in the room

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Jun 02 2022 by David Livermore Print This Article

I don't do well with unresolved conflict. If there's an elephant in the room, I want to address it. One of our family legends stems from a time we were driving in Sydney, Australia with an unspoken conflict brewing between my daughters in the back seat. I asked them to sort it out but they stubbornly sat in silence. So I pulled off the highway, parked the car, and told them to walk around as many blocks as it took until they resolved the issue. You can imagine how effective that was with 10 and 12 year old tweens.

We've all seen our share of elephants in the room, whether it's dysfunctional communication in our extended families, overly invested parents on the swim team, or a work group that resists any kind of change. It's hard enough to confront conflict in familiar environments but it's enormously more challenging in contexts characterized by diversity. Knowing how to identify and constructively address an elephant in the room is a sixth sense of global leadership.

As with most leadership advice, much of what we're taught about handling an elephant in the room assumes Western values—address it directly, talk it through, and if needed, "agree to disagree" and move on. In my book, Leading with Cultural Intelligence, I share how this approach blew up when I was trying to solidify a university partnership in Liberia. I was trying to investigate whether I could trust the president of a local university and I kept hearing cryptic warnings about him. So I met with a mutual acquaintance in Monrovia and told him what I heard. He gave me a nebulous response. No matter how hard I tried, he wasn't going to say anything ill about his Liberian colleague. There was no way he was going to engage in that kind of conversation with me, especially with one of his junior staff also in the room with us. My direct approach made things worse.

Since then, I've developed more culturally intelligent strategies for addressing the elephant in the room:

Be sure it's an elephant

Perceptions aren't always reality, especially if the people involved come from a diversity of backgrounds. Rolling the eyes might mean annoyance in one culture and it might mean, "I'm thinking" in another. Silence may mean disagreement for one individual and lack of understanding for another. And there are times when I've assumed someone was upset with me, only to find out they had a personal crisis going on that had nothing to do with me or the topic at hand.

Before you bring up an uncomfortable topic with a larger group, check with a couple trusted individuals to see if they have the same perception.. Better yet, check your perception with some individuals who understand the norms that typically characterize people in the group. This prevents you from unnecessarily creating an elephant that might not have been there in the first place. And if it does exist, it gives you a couple allies to help you address it.

Name the elephant…but carefully

Assuming you've rightfully identified an elephant, the next step is to describe it. This is where cultural intelligence comes in.

Directly telling a diverse team, "The problem is, none of you trust each other," conflicts with the dominant values of most cultures. The majority of individuals across the world prioritize harmony and using a more deft approach to naming an elephant. This doesn't mean avoiding the elephant. It's using cultural intelligence to describe it. You might say, "I perceive that our different approaches for working on this project may be unintentionally eroding our trust in each other." Or you could say, "If an outsider observed our team, what might they see?"

There are occasions when I deliberately choose a more direct approach because increased dissonance might be the only way to disrupt the dysfunction. But that choice has to be made carefully. I might say something like, "I'm aware that I'm about to default to a North American approach, but the lack of trust on this team is hurting all of us."

Diversity on a team isn't an excuse for ignoring an elephant. Ignored elephants usually get bigger and more destructive. But consider the most effective way to name it in light of the diverse values and norms among the group.

Seek diverse descriptions of the elephant

An Indian folk legend describes six blind men who touched an elephant, each of whom "saw" something different. One discovered the tail, another the trunk, and others felt the leg, side, tusk, and ear. Each man was convinced he knew the "truth" about the elephant. Each of them was right but only in part since none of them could see or touch the whole elephant.

Effectively addressing the elephant in the room requires understanding different views of it. The first person to share their perspective does not necessarily represent the view shared by others. But research repeatedly shows that the first perspective voiced in a group discussion has inordinately more power over the outcome than perspectives raised later. In addition, most of us experience evaluation apprehension: What if people think I sound dumb?

Amy Edmondson's enormously useful notion of psychological safety is critical for soliciting diverse perspectives about a conflict-ridden issue. Just telling everyone to speak up isn't adequate nor is simply assuring people that this is a safe place. You have to create culturally intelligent strategies that demonstrate safety and support speaking up.

Let the team know that everyone is expected to give their perspective but offer a variety of ways to do so. Some will be quick to voice their dissident viewpoint openly and boldly in front of the group. Others will feel more comfortable discussing it one-on-one or by meeting with a couple colleagues and sharing their collective input. Many leaders simply convene a group and ask them to talk about a tenuous issue. A culturally intelligent leader takes time to strategize how to get people to voice their honest perspectives and receives the input with a spirit of curiosity and openness: "Tell me more".

Zoom wider than the elephant

One of the most important strategies discussed in my upcoming book Digital, Diverse & Divided is to zoom wider than our polarizing differences to find a problem both sides care about. The "elephant" is rarely the point. It's typically a symptom of something deeper and its presence is a distraction from something more important.

With family members, zooming wider might mean looking broader than our differences about vaccine mandates or critical race theory to talk about a driving concern we can agree on—safety and justice. I'm not suggesting we zoom so wide that we move from a debate about something like critical race theory to "we're all family so let's just focus on that". Instead, we have to go wider than the political and media sound bites to zoom out to the issues related to a topic like race where we can agree (e.g., "Race should have no bearing on whether someone is treated equitably. So why does it?").

The same is true at work. I was just working with an organization that has done multiple rounds of layoffs over the last 18 months. The senior leadership went to great lengths to communicate why a more lean structure was going to be better for everyone. But middle managers were left to address the elephant in the room with their teams: Are we next?!

The messaging from senior leadership was focused on how a more lean staff was good for the company's bottom line. But there was nothing said about how those benefits translated into the remaining staff's job security or the additional pressure on them to do more with fewer resources. Senior leadership felt like the middle managers were more concerned about the staff's feelings than the bottom line. Middle managers felt like senior leadership was ignorant about staff morale.

We zoomed wider to see the value everyone had for profitability and employee engagement. Then we focused our discussion on the links between the two, something everyone could agree. One of the outcomes was a deliberate strategy for middle managers to be part of vetting any future messaging from senior leadership to the entire staff.

Zooming wider than the elephant in the room doesn't mean ignoring the elephant. It means rising above the immediate triggers and irritations to see the core of what matters to us together.

Forcing my daughters to walk a few blocks around a Sydney neighborhood wasn't very successful. They said their obligatory "sorry" to each other and we were on our way. But what they needed was time, support, and a broadened perspective to work through their conflict rather than being forced to do it just so I felt better about the conflict being "resolved".

The strategies for effectively confronting an elephant in the room aren't rocket science. But we often do it poorly because we fail to address these interpersonal issues with the same level of urgency, focus, and strategy that we use to address more obvious crises like slipping profits or a debilitating illness. With cultural intelligence, global leaders gain a sixth sense to not only see the elephant more wholly but to know how to strategically use the diverse viewpoints to address the elephant and to actually use it to accomplish more important objectives.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.