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The old saying “elephant in the room” implies that there is an issue that is so big, or complex, or unmanageable, or unsolvable that it’s simply easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. In other words, ignore it, and it will go away!

When coaching leaders, the elephant that feels unsolvable might be…

  • A colleague who has the ear and favoritism of the boss, thus causing your client to feel powerless.
  • Or maybe it’s a budget constraint that feels untenable.
  • Or maybe it’s an old Achilles heel that the client thinks is impossible to overcome (e.g., a hot temper, an insecurity, micro-managing…you name it).

Why Do We Avoid the Elephant?

As coaches, we might avoid addressing the elephant because

  • We’re afraid of it ourselves, wondering if there really IS an answer to it?
  • We afraid of our client’s response to it—What if they feel offended… what if they get mad… what if, what if, what if?
  • We’re afraid our client isn’t ready or won’t be able to hear it.

What Happens if We Avoid the Elephant?

  • We appear tentative, timid, or just plain chicken!

  • We lose the client’s respect because they sense we’re not courageous enough to be direct.

  • The client doesn’t get the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to stretch, to grow, to experience a win.

How to Name the Elephant!

Here are two suggestions for naming and playing with the elephant in the room.

(Note: these ideas assume that other ICF coaching competencies are already in place, such as ICF #3 Establishing Trust & Intimacy, and ICF #5 Active Listening).

  • The Curious Observation: The technique of making an observation is a good starting point for elephants. For example, the coach might say, with warmth and humor: “So I guess the elephant in the room here is the impact of the boss’s favoritism toward ‘Joe,’ who seems to have advanced dexterity at pushing your buttons.”

  • The Curious Question: You could also ask the client their thoughts on the elephant. For example, “Feels like there’s an elephant in the room—something that appears too big to solve … how would you name it?”

Play with the Elephant!

Once the elephant is named, it can be reflected on. It’s important that the reflection be from a stance of curiosity, creativity, and optimism. There is always a solution. Always.

Remember that “what we focus on grows.” If our brains focus on curiosity, creativity, and optimism (as opposed to unsolvable, unmanageable, difficult), then we’re guaranteed to notice new ideas and strategies.

Name those elephants! They can carry us into new and adventurous territory!