What do you do with an elephant in the room?


Do you remember when elephant jokes first showed up? I believe it was around 1960. In fact, I remember that’s when my cool Aunt Helen told me my first elephant joke. 


“What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming over the hill?”

“Here come the elephants over the hill.”


And then there was the follow-up to it:


“What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming over the hill wearing sunglasses?”

“Nothing. He didn’t recognize them.”


That’s still my favorite elephant joke. But sometimes, elephants aren’t laughing matters. One in particular that causes a lot of trouble is the elephant in the room.


That American phrase first appeared in 1935. Then, it meant something obvious and out of place. By the 1950s, the elephant in the room came to mean what it means today—something enormous that people choose to ignore because it is uncomfortable to deal with.


There are three rules for avoiding the elephant in the room:

  • Don’t Talk
  • Don’t Think
  • Don’t Feel


To escort an elephant out of the room, use the TALK process. It’s easy to remember because each letter in the word describes each step in the process.


T stands for trust. Offer it to everyone who is in on the elephant conversation. The stakes are high and, without trust, the process will break down before it begins. 

A is for acceptance. Accept that opinions in this conversation will vary. It doesn’t mean you have to accept the opinions. But this process requires accepting others’ points of view without criticizing or attacking statements or those who gave them 

L means listen—really listen. Be honorable and honoring. Set your disagreements and counterpoints aside. Listen with an open heart, instead of a contrary one. 

is a call to keep calm. Emotions run high in elephant conversations. If you find yourself in one where emotions get out of hand, consider what Dr. Mardy Grothe observed. He said, “It is deeply unsettling to discover the elephant in the room is not in the room, but in ourselves.”     


May you always have the courage to have an elephant conversation. But also keep an elephant joke in your back pocket. I leave you with this one: 


“What did Tarzan say when he saw an elephant come into the room?”

“Let’s TALK.” 



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