Have you ever had an awkward experience in your social, work, or school life that left you feeling uncomfortable, stuck, or confused? Does the thought of pointing out the uncomfortable obvious make you cringe? This phenomenon is called in colloquial terms “acknowledging the elephant in the room.” This “elephant” can have a lot of power over relational encounters, could take up a lot of space in a social setting, or it could provide an opportunity to create meaningful connection. It depends on whether you respond to its presence.
What does the Elephant represent?:
It’s the uncomfortable obvious. It represents an unspoken power dynamic or difference between two or more people. Or, a topic that is thought about but not uttered for fear of embarrassment, discomfort, or condemnation. It’s a cute animal, but would we really want it following us around all of the time? I doubt it. Let’s talk out how to make the uncomfortable obvious more comfortable.
The Elephant in School:
Early in my social work education, I had an experience in an academic setting of a teacher, who would normally be very appropriately dressed and dapper, come in to a classroom wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a big stain on it, his hair messed up, and bright orange sneakers. Confused, and trying not to laugh, my classmates and I could not take him seriously. Whatever he was teaching was not registering, was not meaningful, and was certainly less interesting than his outfit. After a few minutes one of the students raised his hand and said, “excuse me, sir, but I noticed your outfit is quite different than usual. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but is something wrong?” The teacher yelled, “yes! It took you all way too long to ‘acknowledge the elephant in the room!’” It turns out what he was teaching was how and when to acknowledge the obvious. He was trying to make the point of the importance of recognizing and calling out difference to create mutual connection, not only in therapy, but in everyday life.
The Elephant in Therapy:
The elephant makes its appearance for me when a stark difference in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or marital status exists in a social situation. In therapy, one client, in particular, reminds me of the importance of acknowledging the uncomfortable obvious. I had an intake with a 16-year old, Hispanic, young man who just got out of juvenile detention. His height was enough to make me, even in my tall stature, feel short. His tattoos were ominous and intimidating. One of his first comments to me was “How can you possibly help me; you’re not like me at all?” He was right. I could not relate to him as a twenty-something, non-tatted, White, female, who has never been to jail. A lot of difference existed in my initial encounter with him, creating relational tension. His difference had power over me in that moment and finding a way to have equal “power” was daunting, but necessary.
Rather than ignoring that moment, I acknowledged the elephant-sized amount of difference that existed for us when I asked him what it was like to talk to a someone of different age, race, gender, and background? He described it being awkward, but also refreshing in that he could have a blank slate. We both acknowledged that even those who are seemingly similar do not understand him. This was the first step in opening the door to the possibility that we could use our difference as a tool for connection rather than disconnection. I phrased it as an opportunity to teach me about himself and he invited me into a part of his life that he did not let many experience. If the stark difference had not been acknowledged and feelings about it discussed, we might have never gotten to a meaningful place in therapy and I would have done him a disservice. It was crucial to our connection that we face the difference head-on and level the “playing field.”
The memories of that teacher and this client have stuck with me every time I am in a situation where an obvious difference is uncomfortably present. Rather than shying away from the awkwardness, I have learned to confront it. It’s important to ask yourself how comfortable you would feel doing the same? What impact it might have on relationships in your life? Are you ready to go face-to-face with an elephant?