I try to follow a rule when facilitating or participating in a meeting. It’s based on the concept of there being an “elephant in the room.” The elephant is typically a topic or issue that is large and controversial enough that nobody in the meeting wants to acknowledge it, lest everyone get uncomfortable.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this before: you head into a meeting and there’s two or three people already there. You’re aware of one elephant in the room, that Michelle and Jason haven’t gotten over an issue that happened a few months ago. You make a mental note, but you’re not too worried about it because you know these folks well enough and you think you can facilitate your way through.

The problem is, what do you do when there’s a second (or third) elephant in the room that you didn’t know about? Josh and Carlos just had an argument about how to implement an important change in the system earlier in the day. It wasn’t apparent at the beginning of the meeting, but now, five minutes into things, you realize this extra beast is present.

This is a good time to try to enact the One Elephant Rule. The overall concept is simple:

Keep the elephant count down to one (or zero) in any given meeting (or project).

More often than not, trying to move forward without addressing the elephants in the room will result in issues at some point down the road. Whether it be a delay in delivery, reduced happiness on the team or any number of other issues, now is the best time to address the interpersonal issues on the team.

As usual, the implementation is the harder part. To start, you have to determine one thing: Does this group only need to get through this meeting or are these folks going to be working on a mid to long term project?

If the answer is to make it through the meeting and no further cooperation is needed, sometimes you can simply call out the smaller of the elephants: “Hey, it seems you two are at odds about something. I don’t need to know what it is, but what we need from you both is to successfully get through this meeting.” Sometimes calling attention to the elephant will be enough to smooth things over for the remainder of the meeting. If for some reason they can’t cordially make it to the end of the meeting, you can always cut the meeting short and try to solve it another way (e.g. another meeting with different people, working through an async document, etc.).

If this meeting was to kick off a long term project, there are few other things you can do. To start, you can try calling out one of the elephants in the room as mentioned above. If the elephant turns out to be smaller than you thought, or the two people in question really want this project to succeed, that might be all it takes.

If that doesn’t work out, you can also pivot the meeting into a discussion about the elephant in the room. It might be best to ask those not involved in the issue to leave the room. Once you have gathered the individuals experiencing a conflict, put on your mediator cap and go to work. This is especially helpful if the folks having an issue are likely the only people on the team(s) who can do this work. Getting into the details of how to best mediate a conflict would be its own blog post. I would try to use this time to focus on:

  • Avoiding making it personal
  • Being unbiased (if not possible, find someone who can be)
  • Making the expectations of them clear, particularly focusing the success of the project
  • Getting both people’s account of what happened
  • Understanding what each person needs to move through the issue
  • Clearly outlining and agreeing upon next steps

If that doesn’t work, you may have to pull one of the people off of the project and find a replacement. If they can’t make it through a meeting about the project, or a meeting about the elephant, they’re probably not going to be able to make it through the entire project. And in the end, by removing one of the people, you’ve effectively removed the elephant from the room.

There is only so much time and effort we can spend convincing coworkers to repair interpersonal issues. If they can’t disagree and commit, then decisions must be made to ensure that the meeting or project is successful.