Price: How to get the elephant out of the room

Ron Price
Special to The Daily Times
Ron Price

My long-time friend Jim Baker recently interviewed Mike Bechtle on his Four Corners Spotlight radio program on KNMI and suggested he would be a wonderful guest-writer for this column. While I don’t always appreciate Jim’s puns, I have come to respect his advice. I think you’ll agree that in this case he was absolutely correct.

Mike Bechtle is the author of five books, including “People Can't Drive You Crazy If You Don't Give Them the Keys” and “I Wish He Had Come With Instructions.”

He has presented more 3,000 seminars in corporations, churches and other organizations, and writes a popular blog on relationships and communication at mikebechtle.com.

The elephant in the room

My daughter, Sara, asked me if I could build her a certain piece of furniture. I said, “Of course.” In fact, I gave her a certificate for it for Christmas.

Two years ago.

Mike Bechtle

The problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to build it. I do well with plans but not with making things up. This project didn’t have plans. I would think about how to do it but couldn’t figure it out. So I would set it aside for a couple of weeks, thinking it would percolate in the background and I’d know what to do.

A week or two later, nothing had changed. I wasn’t any closer to a solution. So I kept putting it off week after week, month after month — because I was stumped. When I don’t know how to do something, my default setting is to procrastinate instead of jumping in and tackling it.

Whenever Sara and I would talk, I would carefully avoid the subject. I didn’t want to let her down or appear incompetent. Since we weren’t talking about it, she didn’t know what was happening. I assumed she was either irritated with or disappointed in me.

But I never asked, so I never knew for sure. I think I was afraid to ask.

Eventually, I realized the situation had created an unspoken barrier between us. My daughter is one of the people I enjoy talking to the most on the planet, and I want a close, loving relationship with her. But my silence was building an unspoken wall that had been growing for two years.

Once I figured out what was happening, I went to her and told her what I was feeling. I apologized, wanting to do my part to remove the barrier I had created.

As we talked, she said, “Yeah, it was the elephant in the room.”

That’s a word picture we’ve all heard and experienced. An elephant is in the room when something obvious is going on and nobody talks about it, and we pretend it’s not there.

I pictured the scenario. I’m sitting on one side of the living room, and my daughter is on the other side. We’re peering through the elephant’s legs, trying to make conversation. The elephant smells, and it fills the room. It’s noisy. It’s huge. But we don’t talk about it.

Once we acknowledge it, we think, “How in the world did that huge elephant get in this room? It doesn’t even fit through the door!”

Sound familiar? It’s happens often in marriages, because we spend so much time together.  We share an elephant — something that both of us know about but nobody talks about.  Nobody wants to say anything, because it will be uncomfortable and the other person might get upset.

The longer the elephant has been there, the harder it is to talk about. But it’s big, and it smells. It gets in the way of genuine relationships taking place.

So how did that huge elephant get into the room?

It came in when it was little.

If Sara and I had talked about it when it first entered, we could simply have guided it out through the door. But when we let it stay, it grew and grew and grew. Getting rid of it became a much bigger issue. Once an elephant becomes full-grown, we might need to remove some walls and get professional help to be rid of it.

From that experience, my daughter taught me how to protect my marriage.

Nobody likes tough conversations with a spouse. They’re not nearly as much fun as easy conversations. But they’re the key to keeping the elephants out of the room. If the elephants are already big, it’s going to take significantly more work to remove them, and the conversations could be painful.

The best approach is to have the tough conversations when the elephant is little. Someone has to have the courage to identify the elephant and start talking about it.

Too often, people see the elephant and start blaming each other for letting it in the room. They work against each other instead of working together to solve the problem. Meanwhile, the elephant wanders around the room fluffing the pillows and deciding where to sleep.

We forget that the elephant is the problem, not each other.

What’s the lesson? Watch for baby elephants in the room. If you let them stay, they’ll get really, really big.

Ron Price is the owner and operator of Productive Outcomes Inc. and the author of "PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work," an e-book available on Amazon. He can be reached at 505-324-6328.