Working with groups in the territory of undiscussables is quite something. It, invariably and understandably, results in conversations that are coloured by the lived and felt experience participants bring relative to their own ‘undiscussables’. The focus I bring is less on the undiscussables themselves, more the conditions that support us to leave things unsaid and hidden. This gives the group and me the safety and flexibility to talk around what matters, without feeling an obligation to reveal all. That is important.
What strikes me, having been working more in the space of undiscussables in human systems, is that there are some common and dominant themes emerging.
Many questions, stories opinions, fewer facts…
I am continually struck by the type of questions that participants bring, and how many of them are driven by the stories we tell ourselves. At a recent workshop, I asked the group what questions they were bringing. The following is a representative sample:
How dangerous is it really?
Once I’ve named it, what do I do with it?
What’s the risk to me?
How do you know what to leave in the shadows?
What if no-one else can see it?
What if I am the elephant?
Elephants tend to flourish in the Jungle of Un-fettered Opinion and Valley of Prophetic Fear. All of the above are driven and underpinned by stories of what might happen, based on often-unverified assumptions, which in turn drive opinions, beliefs and behaviour, and in turn feelings and emotions, not least fear. In each case, the elephant’s size is magnified the more the story that is told emphasizes or focuses on the perceived size, threat, danger and all round destructive potential of said beast. With each of the above questions, my starting point is to ask the question holder to separate the fact from opinion in their narrative, and challenge them where they are clinging to an assertion (effectively an assumption) that is not supported by reality. Without this, assumptions become the source of a ‘reality’ that has felt substance, if not a basis in fact.
Consequences real and imagined…
Invariably, undiscussables have a close relationship with our individual attitude towards risk relative to the question at hand. In some contexts e.g. a work setting, challenging inappropriate behaviour may be the ‘right’ thing to do. And depending on your role, position in the organisation relative to whom you are challenging, and norms/values of the system as a whole, you will have a decision to make as to whether you can live with the consequences. If you have resigned to leave for a higher paid/better position elsewhere, your attitude to risk and consequences is likely to change; and that in turn could be different again to the level of risk you are willing to take if you were traumatized by and/or left a position because the climate had a high level of toxicity and/or undiscussables.
In short, whether you are willing to challenge and name undiscussables is a personal conundrum, as you seek to establish the facts, and then, even if you have the will, conviction and means to act on your beliefs, whether you speak your truth ultimately depends on whether you can live with all possible consequences of doing so. There is no right, no wrong to that; it is a personal relationship with risk.
And it is this pattern of individual risk assessment and decision making that makes addressing undiscussables in organisational contexts so challenging. It defies process, functional boundaries, policies, company values and norms, operating at a tacit, unspoken level that most organisations are ill equipped to deal with. We need to find new ways to ask questions about things that are hard to broach. A starting point might be to recognize and acknowledge that there is something undiscussable, and our inability to admit to even that.