At a school where I worked, when staff gathered for a meeting there were often more elephants in the room than teachers. These elephants—the things that no one wanted to talk about—included dysfunctional team dynamics, unsupported and struggling staff, and issues of racial inequity. In retrospect, I think many staff members really wanted to address these issues but just didn’t know how.
Why don’t we deal with the elephants? I think it’s simple: We don’t address the elephants in the room because we’re afraid. We’re scared that we don’t know how to talk about those sticky issues, or we’re afraid that we’ll say something terribly “wrong” and that our relationships with others might suffer.
So a good way to begin is to address our fears. But to do that, we need a plan. And that’s what I would like to offer here—the outline of a plan to address the “undiscussables” in your teams, schools, and organizations.
How to Get Started Addressing a Tough Issue
Regardless of whether you are a positional leader or not, you can facilitate a conversation about a challenging topic. There’s probably no perfect time, but just getting started will help. There are a few strategies that help ease the way.
State the topic. You can start by saying, “I feel like there’s an elephant in the room. I’d like to talk about _____.” Then state an intention for the conversation—you can say something like, “My intent in raising this topic is to hear how others see this situation and to discuss what we might do.”
Acknowledge fear. Say something like, “I feel nervous about bringing this up—I can feel my heart racing. I suspect others may also feel nervous about this conversation. It’s normal to feel apprehensive when we have conversations about things we don’t usually talk about.” Then take a deep breath and restate the tough topic. You’ll want to identify behaviors connected to it. For example, you might say, “Our students of color aren’t academically successful in our school. They don’t take AP classes, and their college acceptance rate is lower than that of their white counterparts.” Or you might need to say, “John, in team meetings you often agree to do things and then you don’t follow through.”
Communicate confidence that the elephant can be discussed. You should also share your belief that having the tough conversation will be worth it. One effective way to say this: “I trust that between all of us, we can have this conversation and find a way to help us feel better and be more effective.”
Share the impact that the elephant is having on you and the consequences of not addressing it. This may sound something like, “John, I rely on your partnership in our team, so when you don’t follow through on things you agree to, there’s an impact on my work and my trust in you is undermined.” Note: In my work as an instructional coach and consultant, I often hear educators say, “I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” and so they say nothing. This step may be messy, but it’s worth taking the risk. If we choose not to say anything, the situation sometimes gets worse. Practice will help you prepare for this step.
Ask how others see the situation and about the impact that the elephant is having on them. Ask, “What do you think is going on here? Why do you think we might be having the challenges we’re having?” Maybe the problem is that John isn’t clear on who is doing what and the team needs a notetaker at meetings. Sometimes problems in a team are technical and can be solved quickly, but because we’re afraid to talk about them, they become elephants. But some problems are deep and systemic (like students of color not being in Advanced Placement classes), and those problems need and deserve extensive inquiry.
Remind the group that addressing the elephant is not the same thing as solving the problem. By opening up a conversation, by naming the previously undiscussed issue, you are taking one big step toward more effective collaboration.
During the conversation, be sure to fully listen to others and ask others to do the same, pausing the group along the way to make space for questions. There is no way we’ll address the elephants in the room, or the problems in our schools, without listening and engaging in thoughtful inquiry with each other.
I worked with a school that had a monthly “elephant check meeting.” Each department used a protocol to discuss conflict or anything that was being avoided. Initially, staff grimaced when the leader introduced this expectation. A year later, staff looked forward to these meetings because they had cleared the air and ensured that collaborations and meetings were time well spent. And the teachers felt that they were constantly improving their practice and getting better at serving kids. That was what they all wanted most—to meet the needs of their students.