The Elephant in the Room: Why, When, and How It Must be Acknowledged

The last few weeks a number of my clients have had elephants in their rooms: everything from common-knowledge scandals to bobbing stock prices to tarnished reputations, have been in play.

How have I been telling my clients to cope? The same way I’m about to tell you to cope (And if you think you don’t have an elephant….well, make a note of what you’re talking about when others avert their eyes. That’s your elephant.) 

But first, why cope at all?

Because if you don’t, it’s impossible for people to hear anything else you say. You can be as eloquent as insert-the-most-eloquent-person-you-know-here, but if all your audience is thinking about while you’re speaking is, “Yeah…but what about X?” then they can’t hear you.

So, when to acknowledge it?

My advice is, right out of the gate. Otherwise, as noted, anything and everything else you say is superfluous and/or suspect.

So—and most importantly—how do you acknowledge it? 

Here are a few possibilities:

There’s the super-soft approach: “A lot of people believe X about me/my brand/company/product so I think it’s important to address that before I begin.”

Or the less soft approach: “A common misconception about me/my brand/company/product is X—have you heard this? Great—I’m glad we’re all on the same page. Let me take a moment to clear that up before I move on.”

Or the full frontal, “If I were sitting where you are sitting, I’d be wondering about X, so why don’t I begin there?”

One critical thing to remember? Do not sound defensive as you handle the elephant. (Remember, animals can smell fear.) If this truly is a misperception, a misconception, a misinterpretation, then there is no reason for you to be hot and bothered.

If, in fact, there is validity to some of the claims, you need to acknowledge that as well. (Remember: animals respond to authenticity.) You can do this by saying, “I absolutely understand why you think X—X has been the prevailing story! But X is not the whole story. This is the whole story.”

Remember: elephants are beautiful, wise and noble creatures. Treat them with respect and the response will amaze you.

Frances Cole Jones