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January 25, 2023

5 ways to (finally) talk about the 'elephant in the room'

Daily Briefing

    Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Lisa Zigarmi and Julie Diamond outline five steps leaders can take to effectively frame difficult conversations and help their teams address "undiscussables." 

    Lisa Zigarmi is an organizational psychologist and leadership coach. She is the founder of The Consciousness Project. Julie Diamond is CEO and founder of Diamond Leadership, a firm that provides leadership and talent development services.

    According to Zigarmi and Diamond, framing involves defining an issue and establishing parameters for a conversation.

    "A frame helps people organize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and ultimately, allows them to take action on the issue," they write. "We see framing as the Swiss army knife of leadership — it's one of the most useful skills a leader can use, one that solves a variety of problems, including undiscussables."

    5 things leaders can do to master 'the art of framing'

    1. Identify the obstacles

    The first things leaders should do is determine what is preventing progress. "This could be a submerged tension, an inconsistency in action, a difference of opinion, a negative emotion, passive agreement, or an unconscious pattern," Zigarmi and Diamond write.

    First, leaders must ask themselves, "what's at the heart of the matter? What's not working?" they add.

    2. Approach the issue with curiosity

    Next, leaders should try to gain a better understanding of the situation. To do this, the authors suggest imagining "that you are an extraterrestrial observing the situation for the first time."

    "You may ask yourself, what do I notice? What possibilities exist besides my ideas about what's happening? What else could be going on? By giving yourself distance, you can more easily identify other possibilities without becoming emotionally triggered," they note.

    By approaching the situation without a point of view, side, or outcome, leaders can also help prevent or eliminate bias. To start, the authors suggest leading each thought with a "maybe statement," like "[m]aybe … something else could be true."

    3. Explain observations—but withhold judgement

    Typically, an issue becomes "stuck or undiscussable" because it is regarded as "threatening, undervalued, or simply wrong," according to Zigarmi and Diamond.

    Identifying the issue and explaining it without judgment allows those involved to learn about the issue and discuss potential solutions.

    "This step requires that you describe your observations about what's impeding progress (step 1)," they write. "To do this, you have to hold the possibilities (step 2) as equally valid. This step normally starts with these words: 'I notice…', 'I observe…', 'It seems…' or 'I've heard…'"

    4. Demonstrate your intention to learn about the issue

    When discussing an issue that could be potentially threatening to others, leaders should establish "a psychologically safe container" for the conversation, Zigarmi and Diamond write.

    "This is important because research shows that our spontaneous framing in difficult [conversations], particularly those characterized by competing views or conflict, tend to be self-protective," they note. "Self-protective framing all but precludes the opportunity to learn and improve. When a leader shows their intentions to learn, it makes a productive conversation about various points of view possible." During this step, leaders can begin conversations with statements like "I'd like to learn…" or "Help me understand…" they add.

    5. Encourage reflection and input from others

    Finally, leaders should invite others into the frame, allowing all conversation participants to confront their shared reality. According to Zigarmi and Diamond, "[t]his invitation transforms the undiscussable, or stuckness, to an issue that everyone can focus on. This step can be as simple as saying, 'What do you think?' or 'How do you see it?'"

    Ultimately, the practice of framing uncomfortable conversations is "both simple and hard," Zigarmi and Diamond write. "It's simple because the steps are easy to learn, but it's hard because we have to go against our conditioning."

    "As with most new skills, framing becomes easier with practice," they note. "When leaders experiment repeatedly with these steps, they develop muscles to get work back on track and tackle even the largest elephants in the room." (Zigarmi/Diamond, Harvard Business Review, 1/24)

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