In 1814, a Russian fabulist, Ivan Andreevich Krylov, wrote a story that explained how a man walking through a museum noticed all the tiny objects on display, but did not notice the only elephant there was. This fable may have baptized the expression "an elephant in the room" to refer to that which is obvious to an outside observer which, however, one does not recognize. Also to allude to moments in which we feel uncomfortable with a person or with a certain situation and avoid talking about it; or when we are going through a difficult period, but we refuse to admit it.
The repeated problems that are silenced end up accumulating and take their toll. We can avoid them out of fear, shame or inability to know how to address them. But denying what happens to us has undesirable consequences in many areas, as has been proven in a recent study conducted in Canada of 12,259 people. According to the report, we can have two strategies to deal with problems: ignore our negative emotions or give ourselves permission to feel them. Interestingly, those in the first group, the "avoiders," feel less prepared to deal with change, avoid conflict more, and are more likely to fall into failure, rejection, or disappointment compared to those who allow themselves to feel what hurts them. It seems that "escaping" our emotions neither helps our mental health nor better prepares us for the unexpected.
Silence on issues can also be shared and has consequences for everyone involved. A couple in which love has disappeared, for example, but neither of them has any intention of addressing the uncomfortable situation. Or friends who do not talk openly about the disease that one of them suffers from when they go to visit him. They are denials of an elephant that everyone knows is there. In the world of work there are many organizations that look like real savannahs, because they are ideal habitats for these pachyderms. Meetings in which you try to find solutions without anyone talking about the real underlying problem. That boss that nobody supports, a strategy that everyone questions or a merger that has no success are some examples that are in the day to day of companies and that act as pachyderms of meetings. Avoiding it, talking around the bush or using fancy euphemisms only makes the animal gain weight over time. Well, how to approach an elephant in a room?
When it's a shared problem, we first need to confirm that it's really an elephant. Therefore, it is advisable to collect prior information and contrast it before addressing it. Once we believe that we are facing this situation, it is worth mentioning it carefully, being subtle. If it has been hidden, it is for a reason. As we have said, it is usually due to fear of the consequences, shame or because there is no adequate practice of expressing difficulties. Therefore, a possible strategy would be to use questions that help reflection: "If someone saw this relationship or this meeting from the outside, what would they say?" At other times it is advisable to explore what prevents talking about the problem openly. For example, one could investigate the fear that is paralyzing speaking what everyone is concerned about, but that no one dares to address. Or use a gentle sense of humor to lessen the impact of embarrassment. Finally, any conversation that involves unmasking an elephant requires finding the right moment and creating a safe space. No one is going to comment on a problem either in a group of friends, family or in a company if it will later have unpleasant consequences.
If we are faced with a personal elephant, the first step is again to recognize it in ourselves. We need high doses of honesty and learning to relativize what happens to us. Sometimes we think that this problem only happens to us, whether as a couple, with children or at work. Sharing it openly with someone we trust helps us to take distance. Likewise, if our mind has become perfect in denying reality, it is worth observing the indirect signs: if every Sunday afternoon is the worst day for us, we might wonder if I am really comfortable with what I do. If we live a high stress or we feel dissatisfied with our life, we can begin to analyze what we do not want to see. Comments from good friends also help us land what happens to us.
As in Andreevich's fable, no matter how much we insist on looking for minimal details to justify our discomfort, until we look the elephants in our room in the face, we cannot continue to move forward. Basically, these types of situations are invitations to continue learning and our first step is to recognize them.
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