We can’t talk about this

Dealing with undiscussable topics

I’ve written often in this blog about the value and process of giving and receiving feedback. It is a skill that I’m convinced is woefully underused yet is crucial for leaders to master as they endeavor to create high-performing teams. While some managers do a great job of at least creating the opportunity for feedback, they can talk and listen and talk and listen and still have a sense that there are issues out there that are simply not coming into the conversation. This is because, in most organizations and on most teams, there are “Undiscussables.”

We have lots of terms for undiscussables, one of the most common being “the 800 pound gorilla” or “the elephant in the room.” I’m not sure why we’ve decided to use jungle metaphors for this phenomenon but the fact remains that an undiscussable is not acknowledged yet is known by everybody…except perhaps the person(s) who is the source of the topic to begin with.

Dealing with undiscussables is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, simply allowing an important issue to remain untouched can create discomfort and a toxic environment. On the other hand, the issue is undiscussable for a reason. Either people don’t feel safe talking about it, there are social sanctions to bringing it up (the team punishes the speaker for making them uncomfortable), or there is simply not a clear way to get the topic on the table.

If you think there are important issues that your team actively ignores, you should consider finding a way to address them. But be cautious. Calling out the 800-pound gorilla may only serve to tick off the 800-pound gorilla! There is nothing constructive about the well-meaning manager who calls together a dysfunctional team and has them “put it all out on the table” without a plan on what to do with “it” once “it” is on the table.  Undiscussables are usually highly emotionally charged and have little to do with logic. It’s a genie that’s difficult to get back into the bottle.

(Apparently this is “Metaphor Monday”!)

Discussing an undiscussable issue takes finesse and a true respect for those holding the beliefs as well as those about which the beliefs are held. These issues aren’t created overnight and they can’t be resolved overnight either. So what do you do?

First, start asking high-quality, data-seeking questions. If you are unable to do this without being defensive, have somebody else like an HR professional or external consultant do it for you. The purpose of the questions is not to fix anything but rather to understand what makes up the issue that cannot be discussed. You want to find out exactly what the belief is and why it is held. Look for examples of behaviors on your team or in your organization that may reinforce the belief, even if the actual situation is not what it is seen to be. Don’t defend anything…simply listen

Second, help people understand that they are only seeing the behaviors of others rather than the intent. There are tools with which to do this, but the point is simple. I only know what you do but I have no idea of why you do it. Even if you tell me why you do the things you do, I can never know for sure that what you say is true or that you even know why you do what you do. But I can SEE what’s happening and that is something we can talk about.

Third, give people time. Be patient. Making your team aware that you know of the undiscussable and that you are willing to address it may be the only step on which you can succeed initially. That’s fine. Any change to the reinforcing loop that is causing the problem will ultimately change the problem. Don’t be judgmental about what is reasonable and what isn’t…if people have a topic they feel they can’t discuss it has nothing to do with whether you could discuss it or not. Those are THEIR feelings.

Finally, create safety. Monitor your own responses and remember that undiscussables are cloaked in fear. If somebody starts to be honest, encourage it and avoid any kind of defense or attack. Let people know that you will do whatever is necessary to ensure that it’s ok to discuss important issues. If you encourage the process step by step you may find that the topics that are getting in the way can be addressed once they are out in the open. If you don’t know how to address them, ask for help…from the team, from a colleague or from a trusted mentor. However you choose to address it, there will be a lot more air in the room for people to breath if you get rid of all those large animals!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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