Many leaders have been in a situation where there was a proverbial elephant in the house. At work, the default course of action is to tiptoe around the elephant. Concerned neo-hippies and their global warming, i’ll tell ya.
The situation reaches a point where the pain of ignoring the elephant transcends the pain of freeing him. Elephants can no longer be ignored. When this happens, business leaders decide to take action in the hope that, by resolving it, tensions can be eased and the situation improved.
According to Sarah Knoll Wilson, this is when they make common (and costly) mistakes.
“Many think the best way to free an elephant is to call it quits,” Wilson said. “They come in, the guns are burning, determined to deal with the elephants once and for all. Unfortunately, this is not the case for some time now.
Wilson knew, as he had been an executive trainer and leadership development consultant for more than 15 years, was releasing captive elephants who had helped organizations such as Wells Fargo, Principals and the ITA Group. Wilson is an associate professor and author at Drake University and in his book Do not feed the elephants!, He elaborates on the issues that business owners and leaders throw into their meeting rooms with excitement, frustration and anxiety when dealing with issues.
The next time you find yourself facing an elephant that needs to be freed, look for three common traps and employ a two-part solution to avoid falling into them.
Trap One: Being overly aggressive
Wilson explained that if professionals avoid a problem that everyone knows there is, the mental heat is already quite high. Instead of talking in advance about what is bothering them, they are excited and on edge. In this kind of environment, it is highly unlikely that a conflicting approach will resolve the situation.
Wilson said that you will probably get one kind of response or another with this method. “The other person will either respond to your aggression with their own anger, or stop and agree to take you away,” Wilson said. “In either case, nothing is resolved.”
Wilson adds that if you tend to have an aggressive approach, previous experiences can convince you that every conversation about a difficult subject will turn into a war. If this is your experience, the thought of another war may prevent you from getting involved completely.
Trap two: not being clear about boundaries
Another common trap is not being clear about your non-negotiable. “If you want to free an elephant, you have to set clear boundaries,” he said. This can be a big problem if you agree more and reject your own needs.
“There are times when I’m really clean and steady, and there are times when I pretend everything isn’t right,” Wilson admits. “If you dismiss what you need, you can explode because you can no longer lower your spirits.”
When you do this, it can catch the person you explode off guard. After all, Wilson explained, “You spend time convincing yourself and everyone around you that everything is fine. So when you explode at this unintentional party, their defenses increase and they may hit you in self-defense.” This results in unnecessary tension and pain.
Trap three: Assuming your reality is correct
Even if you are not overly aggressive or overly passive, you can only fall into the trap of considering the situation through your own lens. To show you what it might look like, Wilson invites you to consider the following situation. “You have a coworker who feels like talking to you, and when you have the courage to deal with it, something unexpected happens.”
Instead of conflict, your coworker opens up about their struggles and experiences. “You find that they feel underestimated, and so they try to assert their own importance regardless of how it comes to you.” You can see that you have nothing to do with their behavior and they are not even aware of how you felt during your interaction with them.
“Go back and look at things from their point of view,” Wilson said. “Otherwise, you may feel that they are rejecting your needs and your experience, which hinders resolution.”
In the day-to-day challenges we face as team members, it is easy to assume that what you feel, think and want is right. Unfortunately, while maintaining that mentality, Wilson explained that we do not stop thinking about what the other person is thinking, feeling, or wanting. When this happens, it can negatively affect how we interact with the situation.
Solution One: Communicate with curiosity
Wilson said that when we All Fight these losses, we can learn to avoid them. The first part of his proposed solution is abbreviated with the phrase, “Curious, not violent.”
Before you go to someone to talk through a difficult situation, think about what their experience might be. Wilson sees that being curious is a great way to let go of your anger, put your righteousness aside, and engage productively with other people.
“Bringing a sense of curiosity and experimentation into a conversation can help you identify different ways to engage with other people so you can reach out to them,” Wilson said.
To be constructively curious, Wilson advised himself to ask some questions. Would another person benefit from a softer initial approach? Would they respond better if you were straight from the start? Thinking about what they might need, as well as finding out what You Need, will help you to get rid of frustration, set boundaries and be empathetic.
Solution two: Give space to each other
The second part of Wilson’s solution is to give the situation (and each other) some space if needed. “Even with the right approach, you can’t always free a house elephant through a single conversation. It may require do-overs, reconsideration and time to reflect and heal.” If you or someone else is triggered during a conversation, you can’t think logically and things can quickly turn into conflict, so don’t be afraid to move.
“Before you go into a situation that you know can get heated, think about the strategies you can use if the situation escalates,” Wilson said, “and come up with an exit strategy.” Explore the different ways things can go and come up with ideas for managing those situations. It helps to have a clear goal before engaging with another person.
“Going into a conversation that can be emotionally charged, be really clear about the impact you want to have,” Wilson advises. “At the same time, you can’t fully control whether that goal has been achieved. The other person also needs to determine the effect of the conversation on them. “
Reflect, adapt and move on
At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try, Wilson said, “We’re not going to handle every difficult conversation that comes up perfectly.” We will fall into the trap of not demarcating the boundaries, thinking that we are OK or leaving the situation as a conflict.
“Give yourself some pity,” he shared. “It is unrealistic to expect perfection. However, we can take steps to get better by reflecting on situations that we did not expect, by being curious about what happened and by understanding what traps we were in. ”
Sometimes, leaders may come back and apologize, or ask the other person to reset. At other times, they may only be able to apply what they have learned to the next elephant that they try to free. Either way, they can build self-awareness to improve and become more intentional, thus avoiding traps in the future.