June 29, 2009

Held Hostage by Pink Elephants

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. — Henry Stimson

He’d broken the circle. And the pink elephant floated over the table, ready to smash the group to bits.

You know what a pink elephant is, right? It’s the subject that stares everyone in the face but no one dares to address. A pink elephant is an essential, overarching issue that’s never brought tacitly into group discussions.

Groups, families, and organizations alike all face pink elephants from time to time. The beast destroys trust and shatters unity unless you call it out, unless each member of the group acknowledges its presence and faces it head-on.

Back to our circle-breaker and last week’s pink elephant sighting.

While facilitating a post-event analysis of what worked and what didn’t, I observed one person who held the group hostage with his belligerence. Let’s call him Wallace. Whenever someone put forth a suggestion Wallace didn’t like, the man roundly criticized it using phrases such as, “Well that’s just stupid.”

The quality of the conversation began to degrade. I asked the group point-blank, “Is the quality of this discussion serving the group?”

And then one of the others called it out. “No,” she said. “I think we need more objectivity and less personal criticism.” I like the way she addressed the pink elephant, modeling the very behavior she wanted to see in the group. Wallace flushed, and said nothing.

The meeting proceeded, the quality of the conversation much improved.

Afterwards, Wallace beat a hasty retreat. That’s too bad, because he did have good ideas. But how he presented them created tension in the group that squelched open discussion. Had no one called out the pink elephant at the table, the discussion’s outcome would have been far less effective.

Worse, the trust forming in this recently formed group would have been damaged. Trust is the glue that holds people together. Without it, nothing positive can happen.

Not all pink elephants are related to one person’s behavior. Often it’s the question that goes unasked, such as, “What can we do to sustain ourselves as we work on solving this problem?” or “Are we working on the right issue here?”

Where are the pink elephants in your family, group, or organization? What can you do to call them our clearly and non-combatively this week?

And what steps can you take to model the trust you want to see around you, right now?

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