TAG Consulting

3 Ways To Welcome The Elephant In The Room

March 24, 2016

One of the most reliable signs of a healthy organization is that elephants in the room are welcomed, even invited to meetings.

You know what we mean – elephants in the room are those issues that are just “too sensitive” to be discussed, that threaten to cause pain or discomfort, that promise to surface the need for change which will be difficult to lead or absorb.

Here’s the thing about elephants, though. They are used to being able to go pretty much wherever they want to, without a lot of concern for your feelings or plans. They make a lot of mess and noise, crush the furniture, and ultimately demand the attention of everyone.


You can only ignore the elephant in the room for so long. And if you do choose to ignore the elephant, your followers will call your credibility into question.

Welcoming elephants into private conversations is important but it is essential to craft a culture where the elephant is welcomed into public meetings. Part of the art of leading a meeting is knowing how to say hi to the elephant and making sure everyone acknowledges your elephant guest.

So, how do you do that?

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky remind us helpfully that in any organization there are actually four meetings taking place at once:

-The actual meeting itself.
-The informal meeting before the meeting in the hallway or breakroom or cubicle or office.
-The conversation going on inside the head of each participant in the meeting while the actual meeting is going on.
-The informal meetings after the meeting at the coffee machine or hallway or over text or email.

The latter three meetings are where the unacknowledged elephant rears his head (or his trunk, as the case may be). As you lead the public meeting it’s important to balance the reality of the three other meetings in your mind.

Here’s how you prepare yourself to lead public meetings where the elephant is welcomed.

1. Remind yourself of the consequences of ignoring the elephant. Trust will leak. People will bite their tongues when you really need their input. You’ll miss the chance to respond to crucial external and internal challenges that can lead to crises.

2. Acknowledge the elephant by name. Simple, but important. Everyone already knows the elephant’s name – so eliminate the tension and anxiety in the room by saying the name out loud.

3. Routinely ask questions designed to surface the elephant. “Is there something we are missing here?” “Is there something we aren’t saying?” “Are there aspects of this issue that haven’t been brought to the surface yet?” “Is anyone here biting their tongue to keep from saying something that needs to be said?”. Questions such as these grant permission and freedom to name the elephant.

Elephants are big and scary and potentially destructive. But they respond unusually well to hospitality and acknowledgment. And your confidence in leading your team – and their trust in you – increases as you show you are courageous enough to acknowledge the elephant and encourage others to as well.

At TAG, we believe that the answers to your organization’s challenges are already in the meeting room! By helping you to reframe, refocus, and reimagine your organization’s opportunities and challenges we serve as trusted advisors who can help name and tame your elephants! Find out more here.