Tuesday, May 21, 2024

We Need To Talk …Dealing with the elephant in the room

We are pleased to share an article entitled “We Need to Talk…Dealing with the elephant in the roomwritten by Paul Crick.

There are subjects that everyone knows about, but no one talks about in the corridors of power and decision-makers’ conference rooms. These are the taboo subjects, the proverbial elephants in the room that can inhibit innovation, impede performance, and foster a hostile work atmosphere.

In situations where people work together, these “undiscussables” are problems or topics they don’t want to talk about openly. They are the issues that everyone is aware of but no one discusses, and yet they can have a significant impact on team chemistry and performance, as well as on individual well-being.

Negative, sensitive and taboo subjects include power dynamics, sexual identity, religion, ethnicity, addiction behaviors and consequences, neurodiversity, personal hygiene, mental health and well-being. These undiscussables vary from conscious thoughts that aren’t said out loud to unconscious behaviors that everyone on the team agrees on.


People choose to remain silent or ignore certain situations for a variety of reasons, even though they are aware of them. Some of these causes are:

  1. Fear & Embarrassment: People may be concerned about the consequences or reactions they may experience if they speak out about a sensitive or contentious issue. They may also be embarrassed or humiliated to disclose their involvement in or knowledge of the problem.
  2. Taboo: Certain subjects or concerns may be considered taboo or socially undesirable to openly discuss. People may opt to remain silent in order to avoid violating social conventions or being judged by others.
  3. Tact: For reasons of tact or courtesy, people may opt to remain silent or deny certain situations. They may be afraid of offending or hurting others by bringing up uncomfortable or sensitive subjects.
  4.  Attention & Power: In order to maintain power or control, people or groups may choose to deny or dismiss certain situations. They can evade accountability or maintain their position of control by keeping certain information hidden or unacknowledged.
  5. Cultural Norms: Cultural norms and values can have a big influence on people’s behavior and decisions. There may be a high emphasis in some cultures on maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict, which can lead to a reluctance to face tough topics.

The mechanics of silence are nuanced and multifaceted. It’s not just the person who doesn’t want to talk about it; no one wants to ask questions, either. This often results in a concerted attempt to maintain silence on the part of the group as a whole. This can manifest itself in many ways in the job, such as ignoring signs that a coworker has an alcohol problem or refusing to address unethical behavior.

Surprisingly, the more people are involved in the conspiracy of silence, the more difficult the subject becomes. This is counterintuitive because having more people aware of a problem would seem to make it easier to discuss. However, the inverse is true. The number of silent onlookers raises the social pressure to join the conspiracy.


Professional coaches will contend that addressing undiscussable topics begins with courage, humility and compassion. 

From the outset, there is a need to assess whether or not we are the right person to broach the subject and whether the timing is right to begin a specific conversation about an undiscussable matter.

For example, perhaps we as the coach don’t have sufficient personal or professional experience or training to draw upon to be able to support a client through a potentially serious mental health problem that presents itself in a coaching session. Whilst we are competent and compassionate as professionals, we must make the judgment call to decide whether this is an issue we are qualified to speak to or not.

Coaching and therapy are both based on comparable theoretical ideas and frequently address similar client difficulties. They are founded on a continuous, confidential one-on-one connection between the practitioner and the client. Clients in both contexts demand change, and both professions expect major change to occur over time.

The line between the two professions has historically been blurred, and the cause of controversy. In 2018, the ICF made a clear distinction in published guidelines to help support coaches when faced with such matters: “Coaching focuses on visioning, success, the present and moving toward the future. Therapy emphasises psychopathology, emotions and the past to understand the present, and it works more with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues than does coaching.”

Knowing when and how to refer a client to other professionals is an important part of a coach’s professional and ethical practice. Checking in with ourselves is a key first step.

Assuming that we are the right person and the ‘undiscussable’ topic is one we are qualified to support, where might we begin the conversation?


The subject of whether there are certain topics that should not be mentioned at work is complicated and frequently depends on several factors:

    1. Legal & Ethical Boundaries: There are legal and ethical boundaries in the workplace that define what can and cannot be said. Harassment, discrimination and illegal actions must all be discussed and resolved in compliance with the law.
    2. Privacy & Confidentiality: Some personal information should be kept secret unless an employee chooses to release it. Employers are responsible for maintaining confidentiality when necessary.
    3. Organizational Culture: An organization’s culture has a considerable impact on what issues are open for debate. Certain matters may be kept confidential in some companies, while others emphasise openness and transparency. While open communication is essential, it should always be performed with professionalism and respect. Personal attacks on individuals rather than constructively addressing issues can be harmful.
    4. Impact on Productivity & Wellbeing: Organizations should examine the potential impact on employee well-being and overall productivity of discussing some untouchables. Unnecessary disclosures might have a negative impact on the workplace.

Coaching provides a secure environment for people to explore their thoughts, feelings and actions in order to achieve specific goals. Yet coaching is about more than simply support; it is also about challenge, whether coaching is being delivered in a one-on-one or a team context.

The working partnership between coach and coachee has traditionally been regarded as a cornerstone of good coaching. However, recent research shows that the strength of this alliance only correlates with greater effectiveness scores at the start of the coaching relationship and does not significantly connect with rising results over additional coaching sessions (de Haan et al., 2020). This raises concerns about the awkward themes that are frequently avoided in coaching sessions, which may be the true impediments to good outcomes.

So what are the true ‘active components’ of coaching efficacy if the working partnership is not the only predictor? Other factors to consider are the ability to openly handle hard topics and sensitive issues, the desire to deliver challenging feedback and the ability to keep the client accountable for their actions. These may be the true drivers of transformation and effectiveness in a coaching engagement.

Handling undiscussable topics begins, as you would expect, with psychological safety, but not the traditional ‘absence of threat’ perspective of safety. The threat is already present and cannot be removed, in the same way that we could move a hand grenade outside the coaching room and suggest that the threat is no longer present.

Coaches need to connect with their clients in a way that allows each client to feel the connection and the coach’s presence. As Dr Gabor Maté notes: “Psychological safety isn’t the absence of threat. Psychological safety is the presence of human connection.”

To be seen, heard and validated is a powerful, transformational experience for another human being. When we ignore or suppress what is ‘in the room,’ we either arouse and/or reinforce the client’s stress response cycle, causing dissociation, withdrawal and shutdown. The opportunity for insight, compassion, learning and growth is then lost.

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