I was at a meeting a while back, in a room with a low ceiling, comfortably seating about 8 people around a board room table; plastic water bottles and everything. During the conversation someone mentioned that there was an elephant in the room – with reference to something we all knew and thought but no-one was saying. It happens all the time. There are elephants in rooms all over the English-speaking world.
These elephants have become phantoms of their former selves. People mention them as if it’s a common occurrence of no great significance. They’re larger than humans but much smaller than real elephants. They are passive and docile. They just stand there, in the middle of the room, unnoticed. When someone says “there’s an elephant in the room”, there’s a mild acknowledgement that it is so – that there’s something not being said that should be said, or there’s something going on that’s not being acknowledged, and typically the conversation returns to whatever was being talked about before, with no shift in focus.
Having a real elephant in the room would be an awesome, frightening and probably pretty smelly event. If you’re not used to the smell of elephants, trust me, it is a primordial disturbing odor. Then, also, real elephants are HUGE. It would be extremely noticeable – it would be more than redundant to draw attention to it. It would be the most obvious thing there. It would be hard to talk about anything else. Also, they are intelligent, they have opinions and great curiosity. When someone says “there’s an elephant in the room” it is a serious matter that requires immediate attention. In fact, it can be said that it is the only matter to attend to.
In conflict resolution the REAL elephant in the room is the grave danger posed by failure to resolve the conflict. The danger is never just about the issue: It is about the level of trust and respect that is wrecked when we hold back on offering our best because we’re hoping to win something, rather than to create something.
Perhaps then, a mediator is something like an elephant whisperer. We are fully aware of the presence of the elephant, in all its wild dimensions. It is our job to create a way for the elephant to exit the room peacefully, leaving everyone with a great sense of relief; and awe. Damage has been averted and we have had first-hand experience of the texture of its skin and the length of its eyelashes.
None of us will ever be quite the same again. We all tread lightly as we move with dignity back into our lives, grateful that we were able to solve the problem between us. We have all seen the awesome implied power of the elephant in the room. Next time we might be more careful before we go all-out in a disagreement, and so we don’t need to call in the mediator again. The elephant in the room teaches us to treat our disagreements with respect so that resolution is possible.