Fifth Practice: Discussing Undiscussables

Hear Dan read this post.

For more context on this posting, please see:

The Practice of Leadership
Eight Leadership Practices
First Practice: Knowing Your Leadership Edge
Second Practice: Developing Your Comfort Level with Feedback
Third Practice: Caring for Self
Fourth Practice: Leadership and Influence
Sixth Practice: On Collaborating
Seventh Practice: Personal Integrity
Eighth Practice: Spiritual Perspective

So what is an “undiscussable”?

An undiscussable is a work-related problem that people hesitate to address with those who can do something about it. It isn’t that people don’t talk about undiscussables. They talk about them frequently — in the hallways and parking lots, bathrooms and across the cubicles. But it isn’t with the person or the people most often associated with the issues. AKA “the dead moose on the table,” it’s what people come out of a meeting to share with one another privately that should have been part of the agenda.

Undiscussables are more than just sensitive topics; they are the “secrets everyone knows” and they can be incredibly disruptive to trust in relationships and the whole process of getting work done. Some of the most common topics are how people feel treated by their bosses, whether their peers are pulling their weight, unreasonable workloads and deadlines, tensions around diversity, tensions around working styles, compensation — all kinds of stuff that people consider not smart to deal with too directly and openly. We’ve learned to keep these issues behind the scenes because of our fears of repercussions from speaking up. Sometimes those repercussions are fear of losing personal credibility and reputation by being labeled (the terms, “trouble-maker” or “high maintenance” come to mind) and sometimes the fear is just that it won’t do any good to be “the messenger.” Either the messenger gets shot or the message just falls on deaf ears.

While not everything needs to be laid bare in group settings, I believe there are situations, many more perhaps than we’d like to believe, where it is up to the leader to get a tough issue on the table. It takes courage and patience, along with sensitivity. But it may be the only way to build the bridge forward.


I recall an experience working with a small import/export firm that did a high volume of trade. Because of the nature of their business, they rarely got together face to face. The different internal teams, especially Order Processing and Sales, were in frequent conflict. The two owners of the company took the risk at their annual meeting to open the door to dealing with this undiscussable conflict — which of course they had been hearing about in the background a lot. There were about 40 people from all departments in the room. Sales was clustered on one side of the room, Order Processors on the other. The owners were nervous about getting started. When I had problems with the overhead projector, they both lept up to bustle around me with their individual fixes, quibbling with each other about what to do.

Here’s how the opening of this conversation went, in a condensed form:

Junior Order Processor (very sincere): “Well, I’d like to be the first to speak because I know exactly what all of you in Sales think of me. You think I’m a screw up and, you know, the fact is that when I first started, I really didn’t know what I was doing. My computer kept breaking down, too, which didn’t help matters. I was way over my head and I kept making the same mistakes. It was awful. There were a lot of days I thought about quitting but I hung in there because I thought it might get better…”

(Nervous laughter in group)

Sales Manager: “Wow. Uh, I’m a little stunned. I thought you’d be really defensive…I’m surprised you are taking so much accountability. It’s not what I expected. And believe me, I do know we have made things worse for you on occasion ourselves. I guess when people are making mistakes in OP, over here we kind of use that as an excuse to go on the rampage….”

Junior Order Processor: “I want you to know I didn’t blame you. I knew you were blaming me and I would have done the same.”

(Several back and forths here as the Order Processors and Sales Team share some observations of times when there were problems. There’s tension in the air because it reminds people of some pretty bad days. Everybody else from different departments is as silent as can be).

Owner#1: “Well, let me just ask a question here, how is it you were so overwhelmed? Wasn’t there help available?”

Junior Order Processor: “That’s what I’ve been trying to say. There wasn’t anybody around who could answer my questions. There wasn’t anybody to call. My boss was always overloaded and, as you know, she works on the other side of the world. I was kind of plopped down in a chair in front of a screen and told to “just do it — you’ll figure it out.”

Owner#2: “Without training of any kind?”

Junior Order Processor: “That’s right, no training. That’s why I don’t blame the Sales people. I’d have been mad, too, if I’d had to work with me.”

(A few chuckles ripple across the room).

Owner#1 (Turning to the HR Director for the firm): “What’s happened to our training program? Don’t we have a training program for Order Processors? I thought we had a training program!”

HR Director (Straight arrow): “Don’t you remember? You two guys (pausing, looking grimly back and forth between the owners), you two guys couldn’t agree on whether to fund it. You had a fight about it as I recall. You had a lot of fights about the budget. Anyway, as a result the training plan hasn’t been funded for the last year and a half and we also scrapped most of employee orientation. I can’t believe you don’t remember this. You approved it.”

Owner #1 (looking at Owner #2, but beginning to chuckle to himself now): “You actually opposed a training program?”

Owner #2: “I never opposed a training program, that was you!”

(Everyone laughing watching these two guys go at it).

Owner #1, really getting it now: “Ohhh, Nooooo! It’s Us!”

Owner #2, (also getting it, louder now and also laughing): “And what was it you said about the equipment? You said your #%*&@# computer didn’t work??!”

(Everybody laughing really hard)

A remarkable occurrence, don’t you think? People laughing at how screwed up things had become, how interactive it all was in a human, financial, and technical knot, how the leaders were beginning to see their big contribution to the problem. I’ll tell you, as a facilitator, I could have given that Junior Order Processor about half my pay that day for the way he opened the conversation. The other half probably should have gone to the Sales Manager who owned up to his team’s own problem rampages. Both of them out there with just the gutsy, undefended truth of it all so that the whole company could witness why and how the systems weren’t working. And I also think back to the power of that for-real HR Director and to those two owners — their ability to get it and actually laugh at themselves while they took the heat. Bless them all. I know they weren’t perfect — or why would they have let this go on so long. But this was a team of people that had the openness and courage to let that conversation roll. From this one problem, we ended up with a whole cluster of action steps that involved better communications between divisions, training and orientation, budget system revisions, access to unified decisions — all kinds of good, solid action. And the major payoff? An understanding by the two owners about the real impacts of their fights on the company.

Do you think everyone knew where the real problem was before the discussion even started? You bet they did. And they’d been talking about it in the halls for years, but not directly with the owners.

Look, from my experience, it’s almost never this easy to get at and constructively address the undiscussables. Most of us, most of the time, take it so much more personally. It can be a lot harder. I remember a retreat where one of the chief undiscussables was how much time supervisors spent on breaks (they’d all park their trucks in front of a certain cafe, that was how workers knew). The room of supervisors and employees thought this would be an easy and constructive thing to talk about together. It was all a misunderstanding, right? Except it wasn’t, and suddenly we were in the middle of “What gives you the right to comment on my break times? When did you earn your stripes?” It took a lot of facilitation and leadership to get that one slowed down enough for people to really start listening to one another.

Oh, there’s just no space in this post to cover it all…Lord, the rooms I’ve been in (I know you’ve been in some of those same rooms, too). Some discussions I facilitated worked out so well, some were just as hard as they could be and took some follow-up work to get to a positive place. Along the way, I guess I’ve learned a couple of things about the process and one central point about leadership: the leader must be able to be present non-defensively — both as a person who may be on the receiving end of others’ concerns and complaints and as someone who must intervene when others are becoming defensive.

If you are a formal leader of a work team, and you want to advance the capacity of your group to handle undiscussables, here’s a sequence you might consider:

1. Begin by identifying to yourself the undiscussable that needs to be addressed. They all have names, “Conflict between Order Processing and Sales,” “Break Times for Supervisors,” etc. This will be “code” for certain people and certain behaviors that would need to be addressed openly. Now, do a gut check. Are you really willing to move into this territory with a team? Leaders are often expected to handle every sensitive thing in the background. But sometimes that’s just not feasible. When problems are multi-dimensional, affect a lot of people, and are habitually avoided, sometimes the only way forward is through the group itself. If you don’t feel you can handle the situation alone, can you hire a professional facilitator to help you?

2. Introduce the topic to the group as a possibility for discussion. People generally need soak time to decide whether they want to address a tough topic. Be clear that it will require non-defensive behavior, owning up to problems and mistakes, patience and mutual support. Poll the group for readiness one by one. If they are ready you’ll feel it. If not, the group will look divided and hesitant. In that case, look in another direction for solutions. Advocate for openness but don’t force the group. If there’s consent to proceed, set your time and place.

3. When you get there, start by talking about how to discuss any undiscussable. This is very different from just diving in to discussing the one in question — don’t let that happen. Instead, decide together how to structure this conversation. Structure helps people feel safer by providing a container for their shared experiences. First, establish ground rules, and don’t be naive about them. Don’t say, for example, that we will “separate the problem from the person.” It’s poppycock. If we could have done that, the issue wouldn’t have become undiscussable. Instead, help the group agree to rules that are about staying open at tough moments, maintaining vulnerability, mutual learning, respect, forgiveness, and support, being willing to listen and disclose, and using one’s freedom to identify feelings not act them out. Second, establish a plan for the conversation itself. My colleague Kathy Ryan, my co-author on Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, found that by breaking conversations down into three pieces: facts, perceptions, and feelings, much of the weirdness and volatility we are all prone to can be reduced.

4. Have the conversation. If you use the facts, perceptions, feelings model, write this stuff down on three (or more) flipcharts or on a white board. Sort out the facts and perceptions first, then focus on the feelings the perceptions are driving. Stick to the process and keep it moving. It may feel risky to get even this far, so as leader you’ll need to show that you are with the group by asking questions, thanking folks for speaking up, probing to help people articulate what bothers them the most, and, for sure, owning your part of the problem. And don’t be afraid to come back to those ground rules. “Jeff, we agreed in the ground rules to avoid ‘flaming one another.’ Do you want to try to say that last thing you put on the table in a way that makes it easier to hear?” Gentle. Warm tone. Pausing to let Jeff decide. At its best the discussion feels like real dialogue where people can slow down, take it all in, hear contributions from many vantage points, then decide how to proceed. Once people have gone to the trouble of specifically separating their agreed upon facts from their conflicting perceptions and have owned up to feelings such as anger, frustration, disappointment, or embarrassment, they are usually very ready for constructive problem-solving.

5. Move to action planning and decisions. Usually there will be a cluster of things to address, not just one or two. Brainstorm. What can we do differently for each aspect? How do we prevent “knots” like this getting tied in the first place? It’s best for everyone in the room to have a piece of responsibiity for helping things move forward constructively, even if at first the problem seemed to belong to only one or two people.

6. Follow-up. Don’t let the issue drop just because people got a chance to talk about it. Rather, bring people together again later to collectively assess progress on the action steps. Then keep brainstorming to remove further barriers to implementation and to extend the group’s learning.

I’ve used this process in a wide variety of contexts — it’s just the basics, of course. Each situation is different and requires different planning and set up. I’ve used this method to address all kinds of workplace issues such as perceptions of racism in a management team; political, power-based rivalries and agendas in a group; high level nepotism; the leader’s (problematic) style; a group’s dependency on the leader; lack of internal cooperation; competition for succession; poor decision-making processes; potential business failures; incompetence among principals of a firm; lack of any meaningful strategy or purpose for the group — you name it. These are usually the real reasons organizations can’t achieve what they say they want to achieve — their inability to sit down together and deal with the big stuff, the stuff that every one of us would like to avoid.

It takes heart to do this work, genuine fortitude. It’s messy. It’s not intellectual and it’s not a game. It’s anything but a technique. And this is another reason why the capacity to be open and to reflect are such important leadership skills. Because the bottom line is that if you are leading a discussion of what’s been undiscussable it will be about you in some way, your thoughts, your feelings, your style, and you will learn something about your own propensity to defend and to stay in denial about problems. I’m not saying this to suggest that the leader is always the problem. I’m saying that leadership is often the solution with a group struggling with its undiscussables. How you carry yourself in that moment, what your presence is, how stable you are in a discussion that might be eminently destabilizing for you and others — that’s where your leadership will be tested. That’s where everyone’s leadership will be tested.

Reflect on this:

    Could you have done what the Junior Order Processor did?

    Could you have acknowledged your role in the problem as the Sales Manager did?

    Could you have begun to question and inquire as the owner did?

    Could you have stood up to the owners as the Human Resources Director did?

    Could you have acknowledged the source of the problem without blame and converted a potentially painful moment into a shared discovery, as did the owners?

Reflecting in this way, I believe that you will find the source code behind the page and be ready to lead the changes that will most benefit your world.

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  • That is an awesome reminder of what abstract principles really mean, Dan. Thanks! I am brave enough, strong enough, smart enough to do all those things. But I’m tricky, too. It’s hard for me to remember to say what I’ve been used to leaving unsaid. And it’s hard to remember how important it is admit a mistake without making excuses. I will remember! Because a few times I have seen what you are describing and it is beautiful.

  • Thank you, Marianne. You know, many people from all over the world have read this post — at least by Statcounter statistics — and yet you have been the only one to post a comment. Thank you so much for dropping by and taking a moment to leave your thoughts. I sense we are all “tricky,” in the way I believe you mean it. Tricky with ourselves and with others so that we forget what to do at the edge of risk. We have learned this pattern and we call it smart, but in a deeper way, I believe it is really part of our collective, cultural unknowing. Given this “education” in the world, the soul can become, as Parker Palmer would say, a very shy animal.

    Best to you.

  • Wow, lots of great stuff here, starting with the term undiscussables, which is new to me (but extremely evocative … and provocative).

    I see undiscussable problems pervading not only business, but politics (especially in the current U.S. administration), religion and family life as well.

    I’m struck by the story you related, and how it is yet another example of a theme that surfaces throughout many of your posts, that I would characterize as “strength through vulnerability”.

    I really like Kathy’s three-step process of focusing on “facts, perceptions, and feelings”. This is similar to a protocol we use in the Mankind Project, except we use slightly different terms and add two steps (which are addressed in other portions of your post): data (= facts), judgments (= perceptions?), feelings, wants (i.e., what do I want, for myself, not for others?) and accountability (do I see how this conflict is about me, my judgments, etc., and how it highlights one or more areas where I have personal work to do?). It typically requires a very safe container to enable that kind of deep work to be done … which I imagine is not very common in most workplaces.

  • Joe

    Thanks for the great comments, Joe. I particularly like your refinements of the facts, perceptions, feelings model. Very cool.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Hi Dan, just listened to and read your post on undiscussables. Really great.

    Here are some of my thoughts. I agree with you that the leader is not always the problem. But I am afraid that we are seeing a culture of leaders today, led by George Bush, who are unwilling to consider that they are any part of the problem.

    I remember a client who wanted me to help improve the quality of performance in his organization. After about a year, I came to the troubling thought that – HE WAS THE BIGGEST IMPEDIMENT to quality in his organization. I also knew from the many conversations that I had already had with him that he would not be willing or able to explore this idea or accept my analysis. So I continued to try to help his organization. Then, one day, he was fired by his boss. I came away with a hopeless feeling – that no one could help this person face the reality of his situation.

    And I am afraid we are there now in many organizations. I just read that WalMart costs the state of Washington $12 million a year in worker medical expenses. Who can say to WalMart – you might want to change this practice of paying people so little that they need to use state health care services? Who in WalMart would be ready to admit, as did the courageous people in the story you told did, that, yeah, we need to change this.

    I’m discouraged by the leaders of corporations today. I have worked with a number of them. I don’t see the inner resources necessary to do the kind of reflective thinking that you are advocating. I haven’t given up, but I am discouraged.

    Keep writing, Dan. You are doing wonderful work here. I’ll keep reading and listening too. Maybe I need to change my thinking about all of this. I’ll think about it.


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