Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room

At the root of many of our interpersonal or team conflicts is a failure to communicate. Sometimes the problem is that information isn’t shared broadly enough and people become resentful because they weren’t included. Other times we say things that come out wrong and people are offended, even though we may have had good intentions behind our message. Regardless of how the situation was created, if we don’t take the time to thoughtfully address it, the miscommunication evolves into the “elephant in the room” that everyone knows is present but isn’t willing to address.

Recently I worked with a client where the elephant in the room had been present for nearly a year. The issue within this team had led to a fracture in what were previously very close relationships, had tarnished the team’s reputation within the organization, and was causing strife and turmoil that was affecting the team’s performance. Everyone on the team knew the elephant was in the room, but no one wanted to talk about it.

To break the communication logjam and get the team back on the path to restoring an environment of openness, trust, and respect, I used a facilitated discussion process called Heart to Heart Talks, adapted from Layne and Paul Cutright’s book Straight From the Heart. If the participants are committed to the health and success of the relationship, and approach this process with a desire to be authentic and vulnerable, it can be a powerful way to discuss difficult issues and allow everyone to be heard.

The process involves three rounds of discussions and the speaker and listener have very specific roles. The speaker has to use a series of lead-in statements that structure the context of how they express their thoughts and emotions. In order to let the speaker know he/she has been heard, understood, and allow additional information to be shared, the listener can only respond with the following statements:

  • Thank you.
  • I understand.
  • Is there more you would like to say about that?
  • I don’t understand. Could you say that in a different way?

The first round involves a series of “Discovery” statements designed to create openness among the participants and to learn more about each others’ perspectives. The speaker can use the following sentence starters:

  • Something I want you to know about me…
  • Something that’s important to me is…
  • Something that’s challenging for me right now is…

The second round comprises “Clearing” statements that allow for the release of fears, anxiety, stress, and to increase trust. The speaker can use the following sentence stems:

  • Something I’ve been concerned about is…
  • Something I need to say is…
  • A feeling I’ve been having is…
  • Something I’m afraid to tell you is…

The third round involves “Nurturing” statements that create mental and emotional well-being in the relationship. These statements allow the participants to put closure to the difficult issues that were shared and to express appreciation for each other that sets the stage for moving forward in a positive fashion. The speaker can use the following phrases:

  • Something I appreciate about you is…
  • Something I value about you is…
  • Something I respect about you is…

The facilitator can structure the process in a number of ways, but the important thing is to establish a rhythm for each round where the speaker gets a defined amount of time to share (using the lead-in statements) and the listener responds after each statement. It’s important for the listener to respond each time because it sets the proper rhythm for the discussion and validates the thoughts being shared by the speaker. The speaker should be encouraged to share whatever comes to mind without censoring his/her thoughts or saying what he/she thinks the other person wants to hear. If the speaker can’t think of anything to share, he/she can say “blank” and then repeat one of the sentence starters. Encourage the participants to keep the process moving and the thoughts will flow more quickly. At the conclusion of the three rounds, it’s important to close the discussion with a recap of the desired outcomes and any action items the participants want to pursue.

As “Captain”, the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke, famously said to Paul Newman’s character, “What we have here is (a) failure to communicate.” That’s often the case when it comes to interpersonal or team conflicts, and using the Heart to Heart process can help people confront the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but is afraid to discuss.

About Randy Conley

Randy is the Vice President of Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He works with clients around the globe helping them design & deliver training and consulting solutions that build trust in the workplace and oversees Blanchard's client delivery operations. He has been named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Randy holds a Masters Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego and enjoys spending time with his family, bike riding, and playing golf. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley where he shares thoughts on leadership and trust.
This entry was posted in Challenging Conversations, Communication, Conflict, Emotions, Feedback, Listening, Relationships, Repairing Trust, Sharing Information, Teamwork, Transparency, Vulnerability. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room

  1. B.James says:

    Reblogged this on Think CEO.

  2. theprofessionalpayrollmanager says:

    Thank you! Not only a good article but full of helpful discussion points.

    Sent from my BlackBerry® from Optus

  3. davidmcorbin says:

    Couldn’t agree more.
    “We can’t solve everything we face but we can’t sce anything unless we face it!’

  4. davidmcorbin says:

    I agree fully that the elephants must be addressed or they will leave piles of, shall we say, negative emotions thus causing productivity and credibility rifts.
    This is a great example of an effective process.

    • Randy Conley says:

      LOL…ah, yes…piles of “stuff” from the large elephant in the room is never a good situation!

      Take care,

      Randy

  5. Randy,
    I really like the concept. How do you keep this from becoming artificial and behavioristic? What tactics can you advise? Thanks!

    Rob

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hi Rob. I think the facilitator has to have a good read on the attitudes of the participants and a fair amount of communication/context setting has to occur before the actual discussion so that everyone knows what is needed for success. Additionally, I think regardless of whatever process you use to discuss difficult issues, you’ll always have the element of holding people accountable to their commitments and changing of their behaviors.

      Thanks for taking the time to engage in dialogue.

      Take care,

      Randy

  6. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Coaching Leaders | Scoop.it

  7. Aamit says:

    insightful———-

  8. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Communication Pro sur internet | Scoop.it

  9. Terje says:

    Very contstructive, and helpfully practical.

    • davidmcorbin says:

      It’s my considered opinion that a lot of managers are fearful of hearing information that may cause additional work and concern. Due to such items as span of control and increased workload, these managers would rather go into a denial mode rather than a confrontation mode. Sadly, when an employee addresses the elephants he or she is often pummeled by the manager who is overloaded and overwhelmed.
      The solution is simple! When the manager listens, truly listens to the individual describing the elephant he or she may indicate that while they do not have the resources of time, money or even know how, it is at least captured for the future Opportunity of mitigation.

      With this “illuminated culture” we minimize the need for “whistleblowers” and create an open sharing environments which is not limited by the egos and fears of management.

      • Randy Conley says:

        Great points David! It’s amazing the power the comes from mastering the skill of listening! Even if the manager is truly powerless to affect any change, simply listening and empathizing with people can make a world of difference.

        Thanks for adding your insights.

        Randy

  10. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Mobilizing People | Scoop.it

  11. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Inspirational Leadership Management and Engagement | Scoop.it

  12. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room |

  13. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Organization Design and Transition | Scoop.it

  14. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | The Way We Lead | Scoop.it

  15. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | cognitive coaching | Scoop.it

  16. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room « jczaugg

  17. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Management durable | Scoop.it

  18. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Connect! Powerful strategies for cultivating winning relationships | Scoop.it

  19. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Coaching in Education for learning and leadership | Scoop.it

  20. mercurinorge says:

    Reblogged this on Mercuri International Norge and commented:
    Tre trinn for å ta takle elefanten i rommet – et spennende blogginnlegg av Leading with trust:

  21. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Aspire Limited Weekly Update | Scoop.it

  22. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Aspire Limited Weekly Update - 14th October 2012 | Scoop.it

  23. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | If you lead them, they will follow! | Scoop.it

  24. Very interesting and useful article Randy.

    The approaches are respectful and healthy and I believe the concept of finding good in the other party and expressing it – sincerely – with some genuine feeling behind it – and not just throwing it out there quickly, also can create harmony and buy-in if placed in the proper order in the conversation.

    Good stuff.

    • Randy Conley says:

      Thanks for your feedback Michael. I’ve found the process to be very effective (assuming the participants are genuinely invested in improving the relationship).

      Take care,

      Randy

  25. This is great advice for defusing tension and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to share their thoughts/feelings. The I-statements are particularly important in helping avoid the language of blame.

  26. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Daily Leadership 2 | Scoop.it

  27. Pingback: Heart to Heart Talks – Three Steps to Discuss the Elephant in the Room | Education and Leadership | Scoop.it

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s