Don’t Ignore The Elephant Confront Sensitive Issues
I was recently speaking to a person who works for me. We were discussing a subject that was a little sensitive, and I thought I may have been a little too direct. So the next time we met, I began by saying, “I am sorry if I was too hard…” But before I could continue, the person calmly retorted, “Don’t worry about it. It was really no big deal. I am over it.” But I could tell it was a big deal. So I asked that we not move on just yet.
Many times we brush things off to avoid dealing with them. But we must not do this, especially as leaders, whether the matters are big or small.
Too many times we passively ignore the elephant in the room. In order to ease the tension or keep the peace, we silently hope it will just go away. We pretend as if nothing has happened, like a person strolling casually, whistling blissfully, after they just robbed a bank. Ignoring delicate topics is not a tactic any leader should employ.
Here is how I go about bringing up sensitive issues without creating big drama. First, in any important relationship, always ask yourself what “elephants” exist that we are all ignoring? Rely on your intuition as a leader. There’s no need to be paranoid, but be empathic. Sometimes, the other person senses it, and you don’t. Hopefully in those instances, you have created a safe place for them to come to you. And you have modeled to them how to eliminate it.
When you recognize something others seem to quietly dismiss or avoid, here is what I want you to remember:
- Address it as soon as possible, but not too soon. Don’t wait to address issues any longer than necessary. But do wait for the right time. What is the right time frame? For me, depending on the issues, it is only hours. In some instances, days perhaps; but rarely more than a week.
- Plan the ideal timing and setting for your conversation. Don’t just blurt out the words. You’ve got to be strategic. I think the most important factor in maximizing the success of sensitive conversations is to choose a time when both people are feeling good emotionally. Choose a time when you are each relaxed, connected, and close.
- The goal is not so much to say the truth, but to resolve the issue. I know this sounds backwards, but trust me on this. The end goal is to resolve the issue. Of course I am not suggesting you lie. Nor am I implying that you can’t be open and transparent. I am saying that when you sit down to talk, the goal is not to spill everything and let the other person deal with it. Remember the famous line from the movie A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson shouts, “You can’t handle the truth.” Sometimes the truth should be given in small doses, at least given strategically, but never ignored.
- Plan the right words. Choose your words carefully. You can never take them back. Choose words that affirm and empower. It makes a difference if you say, “I have a big problem with this,” versus, “I am a little concerned about this.” They both mean the same thing. You can be both clear and kind.
- Honor people and treat them with dignity. Remember, it’s the relationship and the resolution that is most important, not proving your point. In leadership we should always honor people, especially in uncomfortable situations.
In my story above, I apologized for being too harsh and affirmed my commitment to the other person and my desire for growth in our professional relationship. I don’t want any “elephants” ignored in the key relationships of my life or in the teams I lead. When we won’t allow for it, I believe it distinguishes us as leaders who have both courage and wisdom.
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