Sarah Noll Wilson Noll Wilson

Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. Our goal is to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. We create a safe, honest environment, preparing people to deal with real-world conflict, have more meaningful conversations, and create purposeful relationships. Working with CEO's, HR leaders, and organizations that care deeply about their employees and understand the connection between employee development, employee satisfaction, and organizational success, Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. specializes in transforming relationships from good to great. 

With 15+ years in leadership development, Sarah Noll Wilson earned a Master's Degree from Drake University in Leadership Development and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa in Theatre Performance and Theatre Education - no wonder clients love the energy she brings to their teams! Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She is certified in Co-Active Coaching, Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health. When she isn't helping people build and rebuild relationships, she enjoys playing games with her husband Nick and cuddling with their fur baby, Sally. 

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In Don’t Feed the Elephants! Sarah explores how you can address the true elephant in the room: avoidance. She shares tips for having conversations you may be avoiding, invites you to get curious instead of furious, and shows how to own your role rather than passing blame.
Don't Feed the Elephants! Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships
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Of course, you know what an elephant is. Big, grey beast, long trunk, and large ears. They like peanuts, have a reputation for not forgetting anything and being afraid of mice.

To be clear, no one wants those real-life pachyderms to go unfed.

There’s another kind of elephant that you’re probably aware of, too. It looks like avoidance of addressing a known conflict that creates a harmful barrier to success. It’s big. It’s there. It might be hanging out in the conference room under someone’s chair, or even sprawled across the table. Everyone is aware of this elephant in the room and no one’s talking about it.

In fact, no one on your team is talking much at all. At least not about anything that matters. Your team is discouraged, disconnected, and disenchanted. No one challenges ideas to get to better solutions or discusses the difficulties they encounter on a project. They all say everything is fine…until it isn’t, and you’re stuck trying to solve problems that could have been avoided with better communication. Your most productive team lead gave notice last week. You’re finding it hard to drag yourself into work in the morning. Something is getting in the way of your team’s success and it feels like everyone is spinning and getting nowhere. You’d fix it if you could, but you have no idea how to begin. I get it. I’ve been there, too. Now, I coach executives and teams through these issues, and I’m here to help you, too.

A Reformed Avoider

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about solving problems and disrupting the status quo. I was especially fearless when it came to rules or expectations from authority that felt limiting. I was only 10 years old when I was told that girls couldn’t serve in the church as altar boys. I kept asking, “Why not?” and volunteering, never getting a chance or a reasonable explanation, until one fateful day when a fellow altar boy didn’t show up. I was there with my robes on ready to step in with a smile. Still one of my (and my parent’s) proudest moments growing up.

While I had many moments of speaking up and pushing against the boundaries of authority, that same courage didn’t extend to my personal relationships. It’s much easier to have courage when you have nothing to lose, but when it came to my most precious connections, I was a masterful avoider and smoother-over.*

*Smoother-over, by the way, is a very technical term for someone who works hard to remove the discomfort in a situation by any means possible while not solving the issue at hand.

The impact of my avoidance was put on full display when I started dating Nick, the man who eventually became my husband. Before my relationship with Nick began, my avoidant tactics served to protect me and didn’t impact others (or so I thought), but after meeting Nick, I learned that you can’t hide in relationships. If you try to hide, you won’t just avoid the conflict, you’ll avoid trust and connection as well.

Nick and I had a consistent point of disagreement around how we spent time in our social lives. I resisted talking about it by employing my masterful avoidance skills. I would use classic moves like changing the subject (“What did the Royals do today?”), closing the door, (“I’m too tired to talk right now”), or surrendering, (“Sure, whatever sounds good to you”). But most often my default was the worst move of them all, pretending nothing was wrong, (“No I’m fine. Really I’m FINE!”).

Nick is more introverted than I am and prefers to spend time at home. I was (and still am) very social and liked going out with friends. It seemed to me that Nick never wanted to go out and I always wanted to go out. At that point in my life, I was unskilled in advocating for myself and it never occurred to me that I could go out without him. My idea of being a couple meant doing everything together. When Nick declined plans, it felt as if I’d been sentenced to staying home, but I worried that calling out this difference in how we wanted to spend our time would damage our relationship. Instead of having a discussion about it, I nurtured the situation into a greater problem through avoidance, eventually growing resentful and bitter about all the activities I believed Nick was making me miss.

One night, soon after we began living together, my team had plans to go out after work. I asked Nick if he wanted to go. He told me he wasn’t in the mood to go out with my colleagues. In all the time I’d spent building a wall of resentment around this issue, I’d become convinced that if I went without him, Nick would be upset about being left at home alone. In my mind, I’d just committed to living with someone who never wanted to go anywhere, which made me feel like I was committing to never going anywhere. I felt trapped.

“Fine,” I said. Inside, I seethed. At twenty-five years old, my emotional regulation wasn’t quite mature at that point. The anger from all the times I’d missed out on something I wanted to do began bubbling up. My flight response kicked into action and I desperately wanted to remove myself from the situation to avoid conflict. I felt like I needed to get as far away from Nick as I could before I exploded.

“That’s fine. I’m going to bed,” I said, retreating. Of course, at that point, I was so wound up that the way I said “fine,” made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t fine.

Nick gave me a few moments to cool off, but then he came in and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah, we can’t do that,” he said.

“I’m really tired,” I told him, pulling the covers over my head.

“No, we need to talk about it. In this house we talk things through.”

Oh, he was so right. And, of course, when you’re angry with someone, you don’t want them to be right. I was trapped under the covers in a state of cognitive dissonance. I loved him and I wanted our relationship to work, but having that conversation required vulnerability and swallowing my ego. I had to let go of all the self-righteous feelings that come with anger, and I had to admit that I felt differently than he did about going out.

I also knew that Nick was worth the discomfort of tackling this difficult conversation head on. I pulled the blankets down under my chin, took a deep breath and started to share how I felt and what I was struggling with.

Nick did the same.

A funny thing happened. While I had always feared that sharing how I felt would make a conflict worse, as Nick and I talked, we actually worked through the tension. Nick explained that he just doesn’t enjoy going out in large groups with people he doesn’t know well. He also told me that he didn’t mind if I went out without him. He wouldn’t feel left behind. Instead, he’d be happy to see me happy and also feel like I was sparing him an uncomfortable situation.

Since we were able to talk about it, over time we worked out ways to enjoy social time together with friends at home or in small groups, and I learned to feel comfortable going out on my own. Even still, all these years later, when I go out with friends, Nick makes a point to say, “Have fun! Enjoy your time!” to remind me that he’s happy for me to go out and have a good time with friends.

As discussion became our practice, we noticed that every time we had a conversation to work thorough a tension point, we became closer. Often it isn’t the tension that creates the distance, but the toleration of that tension.

My journey of conflict avoidance recovery continued as I entered the work force and began to witness firsthand the impact that conversations around conflict had, not only on the success of the team as a whole, but on the team members personally.

Learning Leadership

My first exposure to formal leadership development came when I had a summer job as a camp director and ropes course facilitator. I was a 19-year-old theatre major, leading groups of executives through various obstacles where communication and trust were key to successful completion. I worked with teams who not only excelled, but also were energized by the challenges. I also witnessed group situations where contempt hung in the air, choking everyone like bad perfume. I observed all the eye rolling, cutting sarcasm, blaming, and disconnecting that happen when a team’s culture turns toxic.

After graduating with a degree in theatre performance and theatre education from the University of Northern Iowa, I applied for my first office job. Like any good person living in Des Moines, my first office job was in insurance. To say I was a square peg in a round insurance industry hole is an understatement.

During my interview, the hiring managers asked if I thought I could sit still in a cubicle. I told them I didn’t know, but I was ready to find out!

I was not particularly interested in insurance. Mostly, I wanted to have good benefits and my nights free for theatre rehearsals, However, it was at this company that I discovered my love of training and learned directly the massive impact a leader could have on how someone saw themselves.

During this time, I went back to school and got my master’s degree in leadership development at Drake University. Through my graduate studies, I truly fell in love with the philosophy and practices of Adaptive Leadership, a leadership framework developed by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky that “helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.” Through their work I was introduced not only to the idea of the elephant in the room, but the understanding that truly adaptive cultures are ones where the elephant can be called out. Thus, a new curiosity was born. I wrote my Master’s thesis on Adaptive Leadership and began considering the question I’ve been working with for the last decade: “How do you create a culture where the elephants can be addressed and better yet, prevented?

While I was learning about the tenets of what it takes to lead an adaptive culture, the organization where I worked was experiencing real changes and threats as the result of the 2008 financial crisis. I vividly recall receiving an email from senior leaders to all employees informing us that due to financial strain we would be exploring options for “reduction.”

Reduction seems like such a benign term, doesn’t it? It sounds calm and scientific, but the vague nature of this message sent everyone scrambling. As a team lead, my team members started sending me frantic emails and stopping by my desk to ask if I had additional information. I didn’t. I had learned of the reduction at the same moment they had. I tried hard to keep my cool, because not only did I not know what this meant for our team, I also didn’t know what reduction meant for me.

My colleague Janel and I went to talk with our director about the e-mail.

“Are we going to talk about this?” we asked.


“Talk about what?” she said, and turned back to her computer.

It was clear that we were not going to have a conversation.

In the avoidance of even acknowledging the herd of elephants stomping across the floor, our trust in our director was trampled.

The questions from team members soon shifted from, “What is going to happen to us?” to, “Why won’t they even acknowledge us?” and then, “What are they hiding from us?”

This was a linchpin moment for me. The situation illustrated so clearly that a void of information creates the perfect conditions for doubt to thrive. Clarity kills doubt, but sometimes clarity takes courage.

Looking back, I still don’t agree with how the situation was handled, but I certainly understand why my director (who really was an amazing leader overall) chose that path. I can understand, because I know that path well. The reality is that avoiding the hard stuff feels like the easier choice. However, in choosing to avoid, we’re often making a choice to prioritize protection over courageous connection.

Easy Doesn’t Always Mean Effective

In her seminal book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown describes this moment of courageous connection through her definition of vulnerability: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”

In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Leadership and the World, Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow say, “Leadership requires the engagement of what goes on both above and below the neck. Courage requires all of you: heart, mind, spirit, and guts. And skill requires learning new competencies, with your brain training your body to become proficient at new techniques…”

As my desire to dance in the land of courageous conversations increased, I realized that my skills did not match my will. Sometimes I was too blunt, and too passionate. Sometimes I couldn’t control my emotions, or didn’t know how to respond when the other person couldn’t control their emotions either. I grew frustrated when the other person became defensive, or I would be the defensive one, failing to recognize my own behavior as defense.

Little did I know that in one of the more difficult and unlikely times of my life I would discover insight that created the foundation for how to show up more powerfully in conversations.

Wait, Why Are You Calling Them Elephants?

I have found that giving people language that’s creative and playful can make it easier to take ownership of a difficult situations. Lighthearted language does not mean the work is lightweight, though. In using a well-known western metaphor, we also acknowledge that these behaviors are common. When we attach behaviors to shared language, we are able to correctly identify instead of accuse.

While a certain amount of heat is needed for transformation in a relationship to occur, too much heat can result in aggression or avoidance. Using creative language is a way for us to regulate the heat without turning it down so much that we stay inside our comfort zones. Focusing a conversation on elephants allows us to say, “Oh, I do that funny thing too!”

When I conduct retreats and seminars, one of my favorite things to hear is: “Wow, Sarah, I think we’ve got an elephant!” It means we have a shared adventure ahead that everyone is more prepared to take.

A New Perspective

On March 3, 2013, I was getting a massage. Halfway through the massage, I remember thinking it was the best massage I’d ever had. Ten minutes later, out of nowhere, like a switch that got flipped, relentless panic hijacked my mind and body. My heart started racing. My hands shook, and then tremors took over every inch of my being. I felt like my neck was swelling shut, blocking my airways, making me dizzy and weak. This is it. This is the big one, I thought. If you pass out, you die.

I slid off the massage table and sat on the floor. It felt like I was slipping in and out of consciousness.

My massage therapist called paramedics. While we waited for them, I called Nick.

“I don’t know what’s wrong, but something happened,” I told him, my voice filled with panic and tears, thinking this might be the last time I talk to him. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”

At the hospital, after a full workup of testing, the doctor came in.

“Good news is that your heart, head, and lungs all look good.”

“That’s a relief,” I said with a sigh. “So what happened?”

You have an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system.”

“Ok,” I said, trying to pretend that I knew what he was talking about.

“What does that mean again?” I asked.

“You just had a panic attack,” he responded very matter-of-fact.

I knew people who had experienced panic attacks and felt relieved. I remember thinking to myself “I can handle a panic attack” Unfortunately, any relief I had in that moment was short-lived. What started as one episode of panic turned into a daily experience of that feeling of impending doom (the hallmark of a panic attack). After three months in this new reality, I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder, which is defined as repeated episodes of panic and anxiety.

I tried to make it through my everyday life. At work sometimes I’d experience aftershocks of panic, staring at my computer screen, trying to hold it together. I went home exhausted every single night. I was so disoriented. I constantly wished I didn’t have to deal with panic anymore.

I began to work through the panic in therapy and by embracing mindfulness and meditation. In building a practice of observing, I was able to remind myself that the panic was temporary. Mindfulness—paying attention non-judgmentally and giving grace to myself—became a lifesaver for me.

I learned to slow down and pay attention to things inside and outside of me that I hadn’t before. It was such a transformation to set aside my judgment and fill those spaces with curiosity about the world and the people in it. This exercise in compassionate curiosity—born of my darkest moment—started me on my path to finding my calling.

You may be wondering how panic disorder relates to dealing with elephants in the room. As it turns out, some of the tactics used for treating panic also work on elephants. On my journey of finding relief from Panic Disorder, I learned mindfulness concepts like being present with your emotions and discomfort without judgment. I’d always been curious about the world around me, but my mindfulness practice helped me take my curiosity from external to internal, shifting focus from easy stuff to the hard stuff. Most importantly, this practice gave me the ability to be curious even during conflict and discomfort.

I also began researching the nervous system, which led me to a deeper understanding of how our brain works, and I became particularly fascinated by the ways our brains operate when under stress.

Combining this new knowledge with my coaching training gave me the tools, understanding, and compassion to show up powerfully and have conversations that matter. It was like a switch flipped, and I went all in.

Now I’m in the progress of becoming a reformed conversation avoider. I’m passionate about having conversations that go below the surface into what I lovingly call the chewy nugget zone, where we strengthen our personal and professional relationships. As a leadership coach, researcher, and keynote speaker, my role is to create the space and safety for people to set their intentions, see their blind spots, have the conversations they’re avoiding, and build trust through those interactions.

Through my work with thousands of teams and senior leaders across an array of industries, I’ve learned that chronic avoidance of important conversations is a cultural issue in many companies. This culture is best described as violent politeness, a term coined by Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France. Petriglieri describes violent politeness as “situations in which people in groups would rather bite their tongues than openly express their disagreements or misgivings.” Small conflicts turn into major problems when we feed the elephant in the room by working around a barrier instead of talking about it.

Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Studio Animation, summed up the cost of a violently polite culture best in his book Creativity, Inc.: “When you have more truths in the hallway than in the meeting you have a problem.”

Through this book, I’ll help you understand what the elephant in the room is, how it’s affecting your relationships, and how employing curiosity and having conversations that matter can be the solution to getting that elephant out of your office and building trust back into your relationships.

How I Can Help You

Consider this book your personal workshop. I’m here to help. I’ll teach you how to show up differently and acknowledge the elephants in the room through chronic curiosity, self-assessment, and reflection. We’ll employ a Curiosity-First Approach and nurture a willingness to wade into difficult conversations. When we do, that elephant can move on and trust can move in.

Through the course of these chapters, we’ll discuss:

What are the different types of elephants, what creates them, and how can we identify them?

How to figure out if you’re feeding the elephant, and why elephants get fed.

How to talk about the elephant in the room without causing a stampede using a curiosity-first approach.

Why it’s uncomfortable to have those elephant conversations.

How to be someone your team members can come to with vulnerable issues.

What to do when you encounter an elephant that feels like it can’t be freed.

What’s possible for you and your team when an elephant is freed.

Remember, I’m a work in progress just like you. Conversations are difficult when we fear we stand to lose something. I still face conversations that require me to give myself a pep talk and take a few deep breaths to calm my beating heart before I can dive in.

But it’s worth it! As we take this journey, remember to start small, give yourself grace, and practice extending that grace to others, too. Heart work can be hard work.

Let’s get started! Our growth as individuals and relationships lives just beyond the comfort zone. But you are not alone. We are in this together.

Part One

Pachyderms on Parade

Chapter One

Signs There Might Be an Elephant in the Room

When I first started my company, a manufacturing client hired me to do a workshop with their senior leadership team about receiving the information they’d gotten in their 360-degree feedback reports. The Human Resources specialist who hired me said, “I think there’s an opportunity for us to strengthen trust, what can we do?”

Since I think it’s always important to be upfront about setting realistic expectations, I explained we weren’t going to be able to do a full 180 in a three-hour morning workshop. Still, though, I said we could certainly work on making sure the team had some of the right tools to think differently about their work relationships and gain an understanding of how to create an environment of psychological safety.

Why is psychological safety so important?

Research shows that one of the things most high-performing teams have in common is a high level of psychological safety—something the giants have studied in great depth, including Google, which identified it as one of five factors of team success. It looks like this: in a psychologically safe environment, every member of a team can show up as themselves, take risks, make mistakes, ask for help, and even fail, while feeling valued. Creating an environment like this is vital to the success and health of an organization and is a strong step on the path to building trust.

After we explored the idea of psychological safety, I asked what I thought was a benign question “What are some things you feel this team does well to create a psychologically safe environment?

*Crickets.* There were twenty people on this team, but nobody said anything. I caught a few people side-eyeing each other, but otherwise everyone looked away.

When I work with a group, and no one answers a question, it could mean a number of things. It may mean they don’t feel safe giving an answer, they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of everyone, they don’t understand the question, or it could be about something else entirely.

I took note of that silence and cleared up the possibility that they didn’t understand the question by making sure we were working from a shared understanding of psychological safety. But I suspected the elephant would rear her head soon. When we took our first break, I caught a glimpse of a long gray trunk.

One of the team members sidled up to me and quietly said, “Yeah, it was interesting when you were talking about psychological safety. I think we struggle with that. I don’t think that we have psychological safety.”

When that team member left and I was about to leave the room, another person came up to me and said, “That’s interesting. When you asked the question about psychological safety, and you didn’t get a response—what does that mean? Does that mean we don’t have psychological safety?”

I flipped the question back on her.

“Well, I don’t know because I don’t know your team,” I said. “So, I think the important question is, what did that mean to you?”

“That we don’t have psychological safety.”

As everyone was coming back from break, a third person, a man who had not overheard either of these conversations came over and said, “That was really interesting when nobody responded. I wasn’t surprised.”

The woman sitting next to me joined in, nodding in agreement.

We definitely had an elephant in the room, and when we suspect an elephant, we have a choice: to free or to feed our elephant.

My desire for comfort needed to be set aside for the team’s need for my courage. I quickly asked my HR partner whether we should move forward with the workshop as planned or take a learning detour to get curious about the situation. She agreed that we should address the elephant.

As everyone returned from break and settled in, I said, “I want to share an observation. When I asked about psychological safety, there was silence, which made me wonder if there was some depth to the situation. Then, over the break, I heard from a few people who mentioned that they weren’t surprised by the lack of candor. I’m curious, as you hear me share this observation, what comes up for you?”

At first, it was quiet again, but I held steady and waited. Eventually, people started to share in ways they hadn’t through the first section of the workshop. They really opened up, and it turned into a beautiful conversation.

We explored how the founder had passed away two years prior. Some of the people on the team knew him, but many didn’t. Team members who hadn’t been with the company long struggled with the idea of holding up the founder’s legacy when they didn’t know who he was. What we uncovered is that a large portion of the team felt uncertain about their role in the organization, and by acknowledging this elephant, we were able to open up space for a powerful and constructive conversation.

Before the end of our workshop, we debriefed on what allowed us to have that open conversation so we could create a list of specific practices the team could use to address elephants in the future. We’ll discuss ways to talk about the elephant in chapter 4 but I wanted to share what they identified as practices that worked for them:

Explore the topic without the need for a solution.

Allow time to talk about the team and not just about tasks.

Have courage to ask and receive hard questions.

See the bigger picture.

Make sure everyone is heard.

Footprints and Broken Branches

The elephant in the room can wreak havoc while everyone does their best to look away. Unlike an elephant you’d spot on safari, relationship elephants don’t leave a physical trail of footprints and broken branches, but they do leave a psychological trail. The good news is there are solid clues we can use to track and expose these elephants.

People become quiet.

Team members exchange knowing glances (or, alternatively, eye contact ceases and everyone seems suddenly interested in their notes).

Someone poses a question, but nobody answers (or, alternatively, people respond with sarcasm or passive aggression)

People shift in their seats, fidget, or change the subject.

People’s body language is closed off (i.e., crossed arms).

Team members have meetings after the meeting or side chats.

What are ‘meetings after the meetings?’

A meeting after the meeting is the most obvious sign that there’s an elephant in the room and an important one to pay attention to. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before: after the meeting is called to a close, the conversation continues but not with the people who need to be included. A meeting happening after the meeting doesn’t have to be another gathering in a conference room. It can be as simple as two team members walking out of a weekly conference whispering some form of “Oh, my! Can you believe Jane acted that way?” That kind of discussion could just mean these people are gossiping, but it also could be a sign that they didn’t feel safe, empowered, or have the skills to address an elephant.

Post-meeting discussion is the primary way elephants get revealed to me when I run retreats and workshops. On a break, someone from the team I’m working with will pull me aside to talk about an issue. I can always tell it’s coming from the look of concern on their face, and their hushed voice as they ask, “Are you going to discuss X?” or “When in the day would be a good time for me to bring X up?” This is a clear sign we have an elephant, and as soon as we reconvene, we need to find it and free that baby!

How does it feel to have an Elephant in the Room? [SNW1]

Sometimes we’ve gotten so good at tolerating an elephant we don’t realize it’s there. Or we don’t allow ourselves to fully register the presence of an elephant, because it’s too scary or uncomfortable. If we numb our intuitive senses, the elephant can quickly become the norm. It’s helpful to figure out what the presence of an elephant feels like, so we can begin to connect those warning signs with the need to take action.

For me, an elephant in the room often comes across as an energy of direct, silent heaviness. There’s tension and I feel tightness and pressure that can make it hard to breathe—almost as if an elephant were sitting on my chest. My eyes dart back and forth looking for the cause. I’ll think, ‘Oh, shit. What’s going on here?’

When I’m facilitating a workshop, and it’s not my elephant, I will still feel the pressure and anxiety, my heart will race, but I also get excited because I know this team has the potential for a powerful learning moment.

Here’s how other people in an online survey[1], have described feeling when there’s an elephant in the room:

“Tense, awkward, impending doom until someone addresses the elephant.”

“Tingling on skin, heart racing, irritation”

“Unease, uncertainty, exasperation (just talk about it already!) wondering if it's my place to speak up and address it”

“A bit of fear. Loss of control. A sense of "if we can't talk about it, my job here is much more difficult, if not impossible." Will I be shunned if I call it out?”

“It's uncomfortable. You feel as if you want to speak out but aren't sure if you should or not.”

“Depending on my relationship with the elephant (and I've been on all sides of the great beast), I can actually experience physical symptoms such as tingling, sweating, righteous anger, defensiveness for the elephant or others, my thoughts can begin racing, I can feel the desire to escape if my security is threatened. Every possible emotion except joy or confidence can show up.”

“Anxiousness, nervousness, urge to fidget, sense of release when I’m out of the situation or know it’s never going to be addressed.”

“Anxiety, sadness, at times lonely, anger, fear, frustration.”

“A little uneasy and nervous. I am a people pleaser, so I want to make people feel better or avoid an "explosion" of negative emotions.”

“It's uncomfortable with a sense of no trust because people can't or won't be open and honest - often because they feel they might hurt someone's feelings.”

“Sometimes hopelessness. Internal dialogue - do I go through this again or just keep quiet. Can I approach this another way? Not sure that I have paid close enough attention to my physical reaction, but there must be some tension there.”

“It depends on the group. If it is a group or team I am comfortable with, I will make a joke or try to blow off whatever caused the situation in the first place.”


“Mirth generally. It shouldn’t be an issue for adults to address them so it usually makes me laugh.”

“Dread in the pit of my stomach, tightened throat, fighting off frowning, narrowing my eyes.”

“Almost like a fog that tightens your chest.”

The most common words used from the data we collected were: tense, anxious, and awkward.

Take a moment and think about your own experience. What does it feel like to you when you are experiencing an elephant in the room?

What Creates an Elephant?

Often, I will hear people speak about the elephant in the room as if it is a person—but it’s not. A person, process or project may cause issues, but it is our avoidance that ultimately creates the elephant. Your annoying coworker is not an elephant. Your coworker’s annoying behavior is not even necessarily the elephant. But your aversion to addressing your coworker’s annoying behavior could be what gives the elephant life—that is, if that aversion prevents you from productively collaborating with him on the project.

This is where we are really trying to drill home: the elephant is the avoidance.

The elephant in the room is created when people see a topic, problem, or risk that impacts success, but they avoid acknowledging it, do not attempt resolution, or assume a resolution isn’t possible.

Conflicts and disagreements on their own don’t equal an elephant in the room. Sometimes we may overcome our avoidance and still not be able to resolve the conflict. There’s a common, limiting belief that a positive relationship doesn’t have a lot of conflict, but a productive relationship is one where all parties can disagree openly, effectively, and respectfully. Those relationships recover quickly from disagreement and don’t linger in a conflicted state. Relationships where disagreement is well managed are elephant-free, or at the very least, don’t encourage elephants to stick around for long. In effective relationships, all parties expect a fair and timely cycle of disagreement to recovery, making it easier to delve into necessary conflicts from a point of psychological safety.

Unlike conflict in an effective relationship, conflict in a relationship where elephants are present will likely lead to resentment, paralysis, or a feeling of resignation. When we don’t recover, repair, and move on more powerfully from disagreements, conflict becomes a barrier to success, and the elephant search needs to begin.

<<Illustration here – Is this an elephant? Is this an elephant?>

Acceptance vs. Resignation

It’s important for us to define resignation as separate from acceptance as we continue our discussion of elephants. A healthy disagreement isn’t a competition of who is right, but rather it is a commitment to learning as much as we can. That said, in any relationships, there are always going to be moments of loss and disagreements simply because we all hold different values, perspectives, experiences, and opinions. How we show up in those moments of difference can have significant impact on how we think, feel, and act.

Resignation literally means to give up. Resignation is a reaction.

Think of resignation as, “Well, it is what it is.”

Acceptance, on the other hand, is the act of taking something that is offered. Acceptance is a response.

Think of acceptance as, “Ok, that’s what we have to work with.”

You can feel the difference between the two. Resignation is to admit defeat. Acceptance is acknowledging what has happened.

Resignation is toleration. Acceptance allows us the possibility to move forward or move on.

The High Cost of Elephant Upkeep

An elephant left to roam free in a workplace can cause a lot of damage to the organization but more importantly to the people involved. Some of that damage can be immediately apparent, but some you may never see. Think of an apple with its skin on. It looks like a normal apple. Now, imagine that you’ve dropped that apple a few times or it got crushed in your grocery bag. When you select that apple it may still look fine, but it isn’t until you cut it open that you will see the bruising and damage. The same is true when we allow conflict to fester—even if that conflict is merely imagined and lives in our own heads.

Here is what happens when we allow an elephant to linger:

Distrust increases and trust decreases.

Team members grow disengaged and disheartened.

Creativity and innovation can’t thrive.

People spend energy actively avoiding instead of taking action.

Ongoing stress can harm a person’s mental and physical health.

This list is not comprehensive. In fact, one of the most simple, direct costs of not freeing an elephant is loss of time. Let’s take a closer look: years ago, I worked with a team member, Adriana, who had received feedback from her manager that surprised her. She felt like her manager was questioning her intelligence. I knew Adriana’s manager, and it seemed out of character for him to share the kind of feedback she brought to me. While I didn’t think the situation was a big deal, it felt like a big deal to Adriana. The size of the elephant is in the eye of the beholder. A situation that might not seem worth worrying about to you, may feel overwhelming to the other person.

Though she needed to have a conversation to clarify and free that elephant that was her avoidance, it took a month for Adriana to take that leap. When I asked her how much time she thought she spent on this situation, she figured about twenty hours total just thinking about the problem and the impending conversation.

Yes! Twenty hours.

As you might imagine, the beautiful ending to this story is that the conversation clarified the confusion. Adriana left feeling even better about herself and her relationship with her manager. Not only did Adriana understand her manager’s feedback more effectively, but he also learned how to clarify his feedback for aligned impact. She also realized she had the courage to approach a sensitive conversation, and he had the courage to engage with her.

According to data collected by Cy Wakeman for her book, Reality Based Leadership, people spend on average six hours a day dealing with drama. That means freeing an elephant can have an enormous positive impact on productivity. Adriana’s story is just one example of how this can look in the real world.

The other side of this scenario could have been that Adriana did not have enough trust in her situation or feel enough psychological safety to approach having the conversation with her manager. Power dynamics are heavy at play in our world today, especially at work, whether you realize them or not. Power dynamics show up along the hierarchy of roles, representation or underrepresentation within a group, culture, and policies of the company among others. Sometimes the risk for speaking up may have real consequences to our livelihoods, both personally and professionally. While, my goal is for you to feel more confident freeing elephants, the truth is that you decide if you feel safe enough to free an elephant. There is no shame in keeping one around a while longer until you feel safe. And the truth is, there may be times where you’ll never be safe.

The Power of Trust

Key to successfully overcoming the avoidance and freeing an elephant is the trust component of psychological safety. And look, leaders: I hear you, and I trust you when you say you’re good, kind, and understanding. As we’ve seen in the story above and will see time and time again in this book, even those of us who are kind and wonderful may have people in our sphere who don’t feel safe sharing feedback with us. We can influence someone’s feelings of trust, but ultimately we don’t get to decide how trustworthy we are.

This is important, so let me say it again: You don’t get to decide if you’re trustworthy. Other people do.

And the reality is if people don’t trust you, they’re likely not going to tell you they don’t, even when you ask. So how can we build a culture of safety and trust especially related to hard conversations? One way is through feedback, which we’ll explore later in this book. For now, internalize this: you can say you’re open to hearing feedback, and that may be true. But hearing something and getting curious about it, internalizing it, and doing something about it are two very different things. The latter is required to build psychological safety you want—and that all the Adriannas out there need and deserve.

What’s Next?

Not all elephants are the same size. Your coworker could be heading into an interview with broccoli in their teeth, and you and your team members see it, but don’t say anything. That not saying anything is a micro-elephant. On the opposite extreme is the gigantic, mastodon-sized elephant sitting on a company as they struggle with a truly toxic culture and a CEO who is unwilling to address the damage and/or their role in the toxicity.

Often, we lean on our avoidance because we’re trying to protect our relationships or ourselves. These are natural reactions. When we feel stressed, our brains feel threatened, and they go into protection mode. How does this work, and how can we use this information about how our brain processes events on our journey to face and overcome our elephants? We’ll discuss in the next chapter.

[1] Digital and social media survey conducted 7/11/19


Cover of Don't Feed the Elephants!