My daughter, Sara, asked me if I could build her a certain piece of furniture. I said, “Of course.” In fact, I gave her a certificate for it for Christmas.
Two years ago.
The problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to build it. I do well with plans but not with making things up. This project didn’t have plans. I would think about how to do it but couldn’t figure it out. So I would set it aside for a couple of weeks, thinking it would percolate in the background and I’d know what to do.
A week or two later, nothing had changed. I wasn’t any closer to a solution. So I kept putting it off week after week, month after month—because I was stumped. When I don’t know how to do something, my default setting is to procrastinate instead of jumping in and tackling it.
Whenever Sara and I would talk, I would carefully avoid the subject. I didn’t want to let her down or appear incompetent. Since we weren’t talking about it, she didn’t know what was happening. I assumed she was either irritated with or disappointed in me. But I never asked, so I never knew for sure. I think I was afraid to ask.
Eventually, I realized the situation had created an unspoken barrier between us. My daughter is one of the people I enjoy talking to the most on the planet, and I want a close, loving relationship with her. But my silence was building an unspoken wall that had been growing for two years.
Once I figured out what was happening, I went to her and told her what I was feeling. I apologized, wanting to do my part to remove the barrier I had created. As we talked, she said, “Yeah, it was the elephant in the room.”
That’s a word picture we’ve all heard and experienced. An elephant is in the room when something obvious is going on and nobody talks about it, and we pretend it’s not there.I pictured the scenario. I’m sitting on one side of the living room, and my daughter is on the other side. We’re peering through the elephant’s legs, trying to make conversation. The elephant smells, and it fills the room. It’s noisy. It’s huge. But we don’t talk about it.
Once we acknowledge it, we think, How in the world did that huge elephant get in this room? It doesn’t even fit through the door!
Sound familiar? Is there anyone in your life with whom you share an elephant—something that everybody knows about but nobody talks about? Nobody wants to say anything, because it will be uncomfortable and people might get upset. The longer the elephant has been there, the harder it is to talk about. But it’s big, and it smells. It gets in the way of genuine relationships taking place.
So how did that huge elephant get into the room?
It came in when it was little.
If we had talked about it when it first entered, we could simply have guided it out through the door. But when we let it stay, it grew and grew and grew. Getting rid of it became a much bigger issue. Once an elephant becomes full-grown, we might need to remove some walls and get professional help to be rid of it.
When I finally acknowledged the elephant with my daughter, she said, “You know, if you had told me you couldn’t figure it out, we could have spent a day working together on it until we knew what to do.” That would have been an awesome day with her. One of our favorite dates is to get coffee at Starbucks and cruise around a hardware store or lumberyard.
I love my daughter. And I love the fact that we got rid of the elephant. She loves the fact that I finished the furniture. And the house doesn’t smell like elephant anymore.
What’s the lesson? Watch for baby elephants in the room.
If you let them stay, they’ll get really, really big.