Don’t Avoid the Elephant

Have you ever worked with someone who refused to engage with you? Perhaps there was a past disagreement or maybe you’re not even sure what you may have done to hamper the relationship. A friend recently confided that she finds herself in such a situation with a colleague. She has tried to bring the problem up with the other person, and  the other person dodged the subject. She wonders if she should just drop it and accept the current reality. What should we do when this happens? Here are some things we might consider:

Have a courageous conversation. Stop avoiding the subject. Bring the elephant in the room forward and place it on the table. Let your colleague know you perceive a problem with your relationship. Let him know you would like to have a stronger relationship no matter what it takes. Put the focus on the relationship not the person.

Create a holding environment. Schedule time in a private place where all views can be brought out in a safe, constructive way. This will be a stressful conversation. Consider the use of a facilitator or find a colleague with training in conflict resolution.


Identify your piece of the mess. Relationships require an effort from everyone. Be ready for the reality that you have some ownership in the problem. Acknowledging your piece of the mess and committing to change is a necessary building block to repairing the relationship.

Focus on the mission. At the end of the day, good relationships are needed to make progress on things we care passionately about. Improving the relationship is needed to close the gap between the current reality and the aspirations of your group. By focusing on “why” a strong relationship is essential to conservation, you will send a signal this is not about your pride.

As our work in conservation is constrained by declining budgets and increasing stressors, it is extremely important our relationships are solid. Colleagues that are resistant to collaboration drag down our performance ultimately increasing the cost of getting conservation done. I’d like to hear about your experiences in improving relationships. What worked and what didn’t? Look below for the link to comment.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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11 Responses to Don’t Avoid the Elephant

  1. Iaato says:

    I’m delighted to find this blog, and this topic is one of the elephants in the room for a federal system that has evolved during a time of ever increasing bounty. The entire system is adapted to responding to problems by adding complexity and bureaucracy. How do we limit the appeals to do more from the top of the hierarchy, while coping with the increasing stresses at the local level? Prioritizing good communication is one of those ways, and focusing on the big picture is another, as you pointed out.

    Systems theory suggests things will keep getting worse from here on out for federal budgets, as we print money to accommodate too much debt and not enough resources. How do we deal with ever-declining budgets during a time of increasing environmental pressure?

    • Jimmy says:

      Great to get your input laato! You raise a valid (and vast) concern that I’d like to explore in a future post. An oversized elephant in the room is the long-term fiscal health of the US. While environmental damage rises, the federal budget is projected to drop to zero discretionary dollars in about twelve years. Local and state governments will face a similar fate. To learn more see the Government Accountability Office’s feature:

      For those readers interested in sustainability and economy, I encourage you to follow laato’s blog at and The Daly News,, a blog of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

      • Iaato says:

        Yes, if we’re bankrupt as a country, with no savings except for a big debt to our children’s future, how do we deal with the increasing problems? I will look forward to what the Fox says about that.

        Here are some timely thoughts from Raymond Anthony, an environmental ethicist at UAA, from a panel this week in Anchorage:

        “Now, declining diversity on the planet is likewise deemed dismissible. These exclusions matter, Anthony argued, because stripping concern cancels emotion, and emotion is where action comes from. So where exactly does hope come in? If we mourn our losses openly, we see that we aren’t alone in our melancholy or even despair, Anthony said. From here, feelings of emotional solidarity can arise and push us to act ethically and responsibly. As David Hume, the 17th century Scottish philosopher wrote, “There is no action without an emotional impetus.”

        We’ve stripped the emotions from our science in an effort to deal with the cognitive dissonance of too much economy for the remaining environmental resources. The cognitive dissonance grows with each passing day, and the things that we cannot talk about, the taboos, expand. Eventually there is nothing left to talk about but celebrity culture, as the elephants in the room take over.

        I have a daughter, and I have an alternative view to what’s being pitched by the media. It’s time to put the emotions back in, and it’s time to speak out about these issues. Honest communication begins at the personal level.

  2. Susie says:

    Nailed it once again, JimmyLeg. The tusk on my elephant is owning a piece of the mess. Reminds me of sitting with my back to a group listening to a conversation about how I handle myself. That’s tough! Thanks for posting…I’ve got a few relationships that need work (who doesn’t), and reading this is great motivation.

    • Jimmy says:

      Nice to hear from you Susie! Peer group consultations are a very valuable and painful process that can help us see beyond our distorted version of reality. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could implement the practice throughout the workplace? Good luck with your elephants and thanks for sharing!

  3. Duke says:

    I think there needs to be a distinction between what kind of relationship needs to be fixed. If a personal friendship issue is causing dysfunction in the work place, then, yes, a conversation should be started and steps taken to solve the problem(s). However, if the person wants a better personal relationship even though the professional aspect is working OK, then I’m not sure putting pressure on the other employee is the best option. In your example, it seems the professional aspect is not functioning well, especially if these people need to work together frequently. I think your steps are good ones, and I might also approach my supervisor to discretely inquire about a specific cause of the breakdown.

    In today’s workplace, there can be a vast spectrum of personalities and work styles. I don’t expect to be good friends with everyone in my office. I do expect to be able to work together when needed and want to respect everyone’s skills and ideas when we get to the table.

    • Jimmy says:

      Duke thanks for commenting! Good point to differentiate between personal and professional relationships and to consult a supervisor for her perspective. We don’t have to be great friends to be effective collaborators for the mission. Thanks for raising that point!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for the reminders, Jimmy. Probably a few relationships I need to ponder, both at work and at home.

    • Jimmy says:

      Great to hear from you Jennifer!I’m glad this blog is providing a service not only for my own learning. Best of luck with your relationships. You will do great!

  5. Deb says:

    This hits home with a particular situation I have been struggling with and the elephant that I have been trying to stay out of the way of. Between your blog Jimmy and also watching the recent video that also talks about courageous conversations (Ash Beckham’s closet video), I feel inspired not to give up. On two occasions, I tried having a courageous conservation with a person while also trying to identify my piece of mess and focusing on the mission, both yielding horrible results. Why? I don’t think the holding environment was adequate in either case for this particular person. I think your suggestion of a third person to act as a facilitator might be necessary. It might work and I have considered it, but haven’t acted on it. It would have to be the right kind of facilitator because this person refuses to recognize their piece of the mess. There is no accountability on their part, the blame is always pushed to someone else. It makes the conversation difficult, with the person getting defensive and playing the victim. Which reminds me of another elephant tie-in I learned about once, “the rider and the elephant” with the rider being “reason” and the elephant being “emotion”. It’s difficult to have courageous conversation, trying to remain the rider of your own elephant, staying on the side of reason, when the other person succumbs to their elephant completely losing their rider, pushing the conservation onto more dangerous ground. Which is why lately its been easier to avoid or ignore the proverbially elephant in the room, doesn’t make it right or easier, but slightly safer. Thank you for bringing up the topic, it has given me more to think about.

    • Jimmy says:

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience Deb! I’m glad you brought up the elephant and rider analogy. For those unfamiliar with the concept, check out the work of psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, You might enjoy his interview with Bill Moyers (link on the lower right of the page).

      It is difficult or impossible to have a productive conversation when our amygdala is hijacked. It sounds like a trained conflict resolution coach would be helpful in your situation. In my workplace we have access to employees throughout the Department of the Interior who are trained in conflict resolution. This is good because access to a neutral person unknown to the parties to the conflict is important. I wish you success and hope you’ll let me know how your situation is resolved!

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