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Communicating Hard Truths—Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Pink elephant. Don't think it, don't picture it, don't say it. Put all your focus into NOT addressing the pink elephant in your head. Stop picturing the elephant!

Now multiply that by the 10 people in your daily meeting. That’s 10 people not focusing on defining the best marketing approach or ad campaign strategy. That’s 10 distracted people. The result of that distracted meeting is likely:

  • Frustration at time wasted which leads to lack of respect for meetings in general and lack of respect for the meeting leader specifically
  • Lack of clear direction which leads to many revisions which leads to lack of respect for the creative team’s ability to meet objectives and deliver great work


All of which lead to missed deadlines and going over budget.

Have you sat in a meeting when it spirals into tedious circuitous blather, contentious arguing, or just plain boredom? This is due to the elephant not yet named. It makes people dance around it rather than focus on the work at hand. It’s understandable. No one is thrilled to talk about a subject that makes others uncomfortable. It can be scary to call out a sensitive topic. And fear can sometimes keep us quiet to a fault. Whether the elephant is a topic that is known to all or only to a few aware people, it’s tricky to name the elephant without it backfiring. But it’s possible.

Here’s a 4-step methodology:

  • The body doesn't lie. Is your tummy tight, is your jaw clenched, are you breathing short breaths? Your body is asking you to pay attention to what’s going on.
  • Identify it. What IS going on? Identify the elephant privately or by discussing with a trusted colleague. This isn’t a venting session, this is acknowledging the elephant and defining the context in which said elephant lives. This means considering what the challenge is, why it has occurred, who or what may be the source of the challenge, and who may be the appropriate leader to help guide to resolution.
  • Connect it. Often we can position the elephant topic in the context of a similar or related resolved situation. This gives people insight into how the current elephant can be converted to a recognizable challenge and solution.
  • Consider your approach. Sometimes a forceful direct conversation is necessary but a compassionate approach is the most effective. Part of having compassion is communicating what the elephant is and why it’s important to discuss it. It may be obvious to you and not so much to others. People get caught up in their own agenda; it’s our job to help them see the whole picture because it eliminates the potential for taking things personally which leads back to the downward spiral.

  • The benefits of this approach are huge in magnitude in that it builds Trust. There is no more effective leadership tool than Trust. Wait, let me say that again slightly differently: The most effective leadership tool is Trust.

    When a team trusts each other, wild things happen. People begin to:

    • Focus on their job
    • Communicate effectively
    • Deliver great creative
    • Produce more and faster
    • Laugh about difficult topics and get to resolution quickly
    • Grow in their roles and take on more responsibility, appropriately
    • Develop collegial relationships that nurture partnership and collaboration
    • Support each other

    The ability to communicate hard truths effectively is an important rite of passage for leaders. Consider the elephants roaming around your office as teachers…big pink teachers. Use your teachers to grow into a trusted leader and your team will follow your model. As Richard Branson said, “Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.” 

Rena DeLevie

A people-oriented transformational leader, Cella Consultant Rena DeLevie has spent almost 30 years in the creative industry, including significant retail experience (Talbots, J. Crew, Kenneth Cole, dressbarn), first as an art director, then in creative operations/management. Rena has extensive experience in corporate management trainings, workshops, one-on-one coaching and presentations. She writes on the subject of leadership and management and has been interviewed on HuffPost LIVE, among other media, about Compassionate Management, a subject on which Rena is passionate. In addition Rena is a core member of Cella’s professional development team featured at Beyond the Creative and Creative Manager Boot Camp training seminars.  

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