Quentin Hafner

A 4-Part Framework to Address Elephants in the Room

Elephants in the room unaddressed tend to grow larger over time, not smaller.  They get bigger and more complicated and tend to bring out more difficult emotions, despite our wish that they would just go away on their own.  Unfortunately, they don’t.

So, what do we do when there’s an obvious elephant in the room that needs addressing?  Being the rational creatures that humans are, we tend to lean into things that make us feel good, and lean out, or avoid things that make us feel bad.  Because of this tendency to avoid difficult things, this is how elephants in the room grow.

I have a client who loves his job.  He says that his job is an 11, on a scale of 1-10, with how much he likes it.  But there is an elephant in the room between he and his business partner that is unaddressed which makes the job feel like a 6.  How sad and burdening to spend so much time in an environment where any of us could be robbed of nearly 50% of our satisfaction due to an elephant in the room.

As the cliché goes,

“People don’t leave jobs, they leave environments that are uncomfortable.

Here is a 4-step framework to addressing any elephant in the room.

1. Ask if you’re imagining this elephant or if this elephant really exists.

The first step in addressing any elephant in the room is a humble posture that you may have gotten it wrong and that there is no elephant in the room at all.  Sometimes we can take things personal, assign meaning to things, and create elephants in our minds that aren’t’ there.  So, the first step is trying to verify if there is any elephant at all.  

We might do this my saying something such as:
“Hey, I’m feeling like there might be this elephant in the room between us, but I might just be making it up in my head…what do you think about this possible elephant in the room between us?   Have you noticed it?”

2. Don’t attack the elephant.

Addressing elephants in the room can bring up big feelings between people and if we want to tackle the elephant in the room, we have to be very mindful how talking about it might make other people feel.  There’s a reason the elephant in the room exists…it’s a difficult topic that’s been avoided because it’s anxiety provoking.  By addressing it, we’ll raise all those fears in the other person to the surface and they may respond defensively.   So, we have to approach the conversation about the elephant extremely non-attacking and delicately.

We might say something like: 

“I’m sure there’s a good reason this elephant in the room exists between us, but I would love to address whatever is going on between us that is causing this elephant in the room.  I am not suggesting the elephant in the room is your fault at all….”

3. Make a plan to remove the elephant.

Elephants in the room didn’t get there overnight, and they usually don’t go away overnight.  We have to create a plan to remove the elephant, and we have to create a plan together.  One person can’t remove the elephant on their own…it will take the work of both people committing to a systematic plan to remove the elephant.

We might say something like:

“I would love for us to have a relationship where there weren’t any elephants in the room between us.  Would you be open to you and I committing to a weekly meeting where we can address any hard topics so we don’t have any elephants in the room between us?”

4. Express why the elephant in the room matters.

To be an effective leader, you have to be willing to share your heart.  This pains many leaders because they wrongly believe vulnerability is weakness.  It’s not.  In fact, our ability to be vulnerable communicates incredible strength.  You know this in your soul and your people know this too.  In order for the elephant in the room to go away, and go away for good, we have to communicate why any of this matters at all.  We have to communicate what it would mean to us, emotionally, to be rid of elephants in the room.  This is the final step in addressing elephants in the room, and the most important.

We might say something like:

“It really means a lot to me that our relationship is strong and healthy and it pains me to have elephants in the room between us. I know I will feel so much better if we’re able to have open and honest conversations, and I appreciate you willing to do that with me”.

Having elephants in the room will rob us of joy, cause us to have sleepless nights, and deteriorate the vital relationships for us to function at the highest level.  In my own life, I’ve made it a practice to try address elephants in the room when they are tiny, because I know the longer I avoid them the bigger and more difficult they become.  Little baby elephants are cute and fun, but giant elephants with big tusks are overwhelming.

If there’s an elephant in the room in your life, take a stab at using this 4-part-framework to begin addressing it.  And remember, elephants in the room didn’t get there overnight and they don’t go away overnight, so commit to running through this framework a few times to finally get the result you’re looking for!


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