You see the giant footprints the moment you walk through the door. The conference room is a swirling mess of tension, heaviness, anxiety, and peanut shells. Something is very wrong with your team and everybody knows it but nobody’s talking about it. It’s obvious, there’s an elephant in the room and Sarah Noll Wilson knows your elephant is not there by accident. It was created and someone has been feeding it. Is it you?
In her new book, Don’t Feed the Elephants!, Sarah explores how you could address the true elephant in the room: Avoidance. Inside the book, she shares tips for having conversations you may be avoiding, invites you to get curious instead of furious, and shows you how to own your own role rather than passing the blame. The book aims to teach shared language to free the elephants you see and the confidence to do so.
Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Sarah Noll Wilson, author of Don’t Feed the Elephants!: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Partnerships. Sarah, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Sarah Noll Wilson: Thank you for having me, excited to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Why don’t you kick this off for us. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yup. I’m laughing, I’m laughing a little bit because my professional journey started as a theater performance, theater education major.
Drew Appelbaum: Okay.
Sarah Noll Wilson: I found myself in the world of insurance because that’s what people do when they live in Des Moines, Iowa, they find themselves in insurance. Currently, I own a leadership coaching and consulting firm where my colleagues and I are deeply passionate and on a mission, to make the workplace work better for humans. Over the last decade and a half or so, I’ve had various roles in various positions within the insurance industry that has led me to this place of starting my own company.
Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to share the stories in the book? Did you have an “aha” moment? Was there something really inspiring out there for you or did enough people just tell you, “You really need to write this stuff down”?
Sarah Noll Wilson: I have really been committed to figuring out how can we create relationships and then thus a workplace where people can speak more openly and candidly. I lovingly say that I come from generations of avoiders and I’ve seen firsthand the unnecessary damage that can happen.
The shifting from doing the work to wanting to put it to a book form wasn’t inspired by one thing. I think it’s for the last, since 2008 really, when I first became — introduced to this idea of the elephant in the room, right? I became really fascinated with how do you actually create a culture where elephants can be freed or prevented in the first place because I had never experienced that before.
I felt like we were clear enough in some [of our] best practices that it was time to try to create a vehicle to get it into as many hands as possible.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you decided you were going to write this book — I think a lot of people have the outline of the book, they have an idea of what they want to talk about, you end up pivoting along the way and sometimes you come to some major breakthroughs or learnings. Did you have any of these breakthroughs or learnings during your writing journey?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Oh yeah. Something to comment on is, I started thinking about the book in earnest in 2019, started working on writing it in 2019, and then everything changed, right? Pandemic happened, my company made some major shifts. We had a first draft and I’ll never forget, we had the first draft in November of 2019 and it was like, “This is pretty good.”
Then, as the world changed, then my thinking and my world changed, right? There are some pretty significant shifts that happened and I think that one of the things that I try to capture, at least a little bit because I recognize that whenever you write a book, it’s a snapshot of where you are and where the thinking is.
Even since writing the book, things have shifted and changed and become clearer but one thing that started to become really clear is just the impact that power dynamics have on people feeling safe and how important that is in creating a safe culture, especially those people who are in formal positions of authority and power. That was something that was a big shift for us as we were working through it.
Drew Appelbaum: Who in your mind were you writing this book for? Is this for business owners, business leaders, managers?
Sarah Noll Wilson: There were three different groups that I was keeping in mind. Part of it is the people we end up partnering with the most are typically people who are either in an existing senior leadership role or in an HR position.
It was intended to be written for people from a workplace perspective but the reality is that relationships are relationships and conversations are conversations. A secondary or tertiary level of audience was also just for people to make connections to their personal life, so we’re really intentional about weaving in stories that weren’t just work-focused, but that certainly was our primary audience.
Because we spent so much time with the people we work with and there’s a lot of energy that can be built up or drained, depending on the culture we’re in or the people we work with. I very much had in mind the key human resource partners that we work with as well as the senior leaders as we were writing that but recognizing that it can be applied to all relationships, it was always in there as well.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig into the book itself and we’ll start with the title. Can you define what you mean when you keep talking about elephants?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yeah, so the metaphor “the elephant in the room” is a common western metaphor, right? It’s not necessarily used globally but it’s very common and has been around since about the 40s or 50s when it first came up. A lot of times, when people think about the elephant in the room, sometimes they think about it as being a person or, “we’ve got an elephant in the room” and they lean over and they’re pointing to their boss or whatever the case might be.
The way that we define it is that the elephant is created by our avoidance of acknowledging or addressing a conflict that’s actually getting in the way of our success. That toxic leader isn’t the elephant. It’s our avoidance of acknowledging or addressing, that creates the elephant in the room. That’s one of the things we wanted to clarify because sometimes it can be used as a term of blaming or shaming instead of ownership. Because if you and I were colleagues and, let’s say you had an issue with me, if you came and talked to me, there wouldn’t be an elephant in the room because we have the conversation. If what I was doing was causing and impairing our ability to be successful, we didn’t have that conversation or we couldn’t, then that’s where the elephant starts to emerge.
Drew Appelbaum: You say in the book, “In choosing to avoid the elephant, we’re often making a choice to prioritize protection over courageous connection.” Can you tell us, what actually can happen when you avoid the elephant?
Sarah Noll Wilson: When we are in a place of avoiding uncomfortable conversation or navigating a difficult conflict, it’s coming from a place of self-protection, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Our brains are ultimately wired for us to survive and it’s really good at picking out threats to us physically, mentally, emotionally to our ego.
When we are in a situation where we have moved into that protection place, whether that’s consciously or on autopilot, it can cause a whole host of things. We can become more detached, we can decrease trust with each other, we can potentially become resentful or bitter, we could be spending a lot of energy on something.
I want to be really clear, not all elephants, not all conflict can be resolved, right? Or, not all conflict can be resolved in a way that we want but there is a huge burden when we are in a situation where we either can’t, choose not to or don’t know how to navigate those difficult conversations.
The reason I use that word “courageous connections” is because, when there’s something important to us — or maybe we avoid a conversation — [it’s] because the relationship is important to us. There’s something on the line and there can be a really powerful moment when we’re willing to step into it with each other to say, “Hey, I care about you enough to take this risk”.
Sometimes, when it works well because I’m going to — I’m very realistic and I’ve experienced where it might not. When it does work well, oftentimes, a relationship can leave even better than having the conversation not happen at all.
Drew Appelbaum: I want to talk a little bit more about you as you call yourself a reformed avoider. Maybe give us a little bit about your story and your experiences with this.
Sarah Noll Wilson: I would say, it’s still in progress. Reformed avoider, I lovingly say this is a love letter of a book to people like me. I think sometimes we write books for ourselves. Growing up in the Midwest, one of the high values is the “Midwest nice”, which means that I didn’t grow up in a culture, in a family, where we navigated the hard stuff.
Now, we loved each other, we really love each other, I’m very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive family but you know, both from a family perspective as well as just the environment which I grew up in, it was all about “We keep the water smooth, we pretend that things aren’t there, we do whatever we can to smooth things over instead of having the hard conversations”.
There’s a great term that I reference, the whole idea of it’s like, “I don’t think it’s Midwest nice but it’s that violent politeness,” right? I joke that I got more training into how to drive a car than I did [in] how to learn about myself and how to learn about someone else and how to navigate that. I’m constantly having to push against this innate sort of default behavior of, “Ooh, if we just avoid it, if we just smooth it over, if we just pretend it didn’t happen, it will go away.”
The thing that I’ve learned is, we’re seeing this a lot over the last two years with the world we’ve been in is, there’s been a lot of erosion of relationships. When that erosion happens or that micro-incision happens, if we don’t take intentional action to heal it, it weakens the connection. Or there’s a scar that can be left in place and so that’s been a part of my journey is to realize that the cost of when I avoid, the comfort I might gain in the short-term almost never outweighs the benefit in the long-term.
Drew Appelbaum: As you were reforming yourself, do you find yourself just in a completely different mindset? Are you able to step back and really think about the overall picture when you’re seeing something like this occur or sometimes you still get kind of sucked in a little bit?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yeah, I mean, all of the above. I definitely see my relationships through a different lens. Sometimes I joke that I kind of wish I was ignorant again, sometimes because you can — whether it’s personal relationships or professional relationships — I feel like there are times when I can see that that erosion to the relationship potentially happening in real-time.
The sense of urgency feels different for me now than it ever did before. There are times when I can catch that protective brain — maybe not always in the moment but certainly pretty quickly afterwards but — all that is to say that even though I feel like I have a much deeper understanding of relationships and communication techniques and all of that, there are just still times when it takes me a little bit to build up the courage or I have to process through or I have to slow down and go, “Okay, what was it Sarah that was so triggering about that? What is the value of yours that is being stepped on?”
I feel like I know that I definitely have more tools and I also know that I have a really beautiful default that I have to work through and work past when I have situations that come out because sometimes people go, “Well, this is easy for you Sarah. You know you’re literally writing the book on it.” And sometimes when I’m struggling, I’ll be in my kitchen table and I am sitting there and my husband Nick, will walk in and I’ll be like, “I just don’t know how I need to approach this,” and it was hurtful or I think I hurt them or whatever the situation is and he’s always a little bit of a smart Al.
He can be like, “That’s too bad you don’t know somebody who’s literally writing the book. I wonder what…” you know? I’m like, “I know, this is why it’s so hard still” because when something is on the line there’s risk, even when you have strategies, the risk of hurting somebody who is important to you can be scary.
Different Size Elephants Require Different Sized Solutions
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dig in more in terms of that. What is that process of getting that elephant out and is the solution the same for all different kinds of elephants? Some in the office, some in your personal life, some in your family perhaps?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Well, a couple of things that I want to say to that because you know, we see this when we’re working with teams in our workshops and I am already hearing this from people who have read the book is that there is sort of this like, “Oh, I am going to move totally to the other direction like we just need to call it out and we just need to have the conversation” and we bypass all of the self-reflection that needs to happen and now we might over-rotate.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to humans. We’re just too complex, right? Our relationships then are equally complex because we’re all complex. So, I want to be really clear that even though what we present are some best practices, they are not the only practices because there are times when you might not be safe. There might be times when you weigh the options and you intentionally choose to not engage, which is different than coming from a place of default.
If I am going to not maybe explore or approach a conversation with somebody, I always want it to come from a place of choice, which still puts me in a place of power instead of that just being my default because I’m scared. One strategy that can be helpful, and that we outline in the book, is what we call the “curiosity first approach”. Where this came from is, we, in our work, we have a front-row view of lots of different relationships and lots of different dynamics in the workplace.
There were some consistent patterns we were seeing, right? That often people weren’t able to or didn’t know how to or were unwilling to consider the other person’s perspective, right? I’m in a triggered state therefore it’s easier for me to blame you or to point outwards instead of reflecting on and understanding what’s your perspective. The other pattern we saw is that, there was not often where we’ve seen people take time to reflect on the role that they played in the situation and then take it a step further of just understanding what was it about this situation that triggered you.
If somebody says or does something harmful or if you are struggling in a relationship, it’s usually because you have a need that’s not being met or some kind of value that’s being stepped on —and that’s not to say that and I don’t say that to excuse toxic abuse of behavior by no means. There is accountability there a 100% but when you think of sort of maybe more benign interactions, you know, somebody sends you an email and they don’t say thank you and you’re like, “Ooh, my feathers get ruffled and boy, they are rude.”
Well, what was it about that? Well, I know for me I like to chit-chat and that’s a value of mine, right? Connecting. And so the whole idea of the “curiosity first approach” is, first you’ve got to get curious with yourself. What is it about this situation that triggered you or what needs are not being met? Then also being willing to ask yourself and what if any role that I play that may have contributed to this. That is a hard question to ask and it’s an even harder one to answer, right?
Drew Appelbaum: Yes.
Sarah Noll Wilson: We like to be good people. Most of us don’t wake up wanting to be malicious and yet, we have times when we’re not at our best selves. Then, that getting curious about the other person, that’s an important one and also a tricky one from the standpoint of we’re not asking people to make assumptions or to fill in stories that aren’t there. We’re just priming our brain to go, “You have a perspective on the situation that might be and is likely different than mine.”
Again, depending on the circumstance — because you asked can they be applied to all situations, right? If I am in a situation where I experience perhaps an abusive behavior, toxic behavior towards me, I’m not going to ask somebody to get curious about the person who is causing that harm, right? But if it is a situation where we’re colleagues working on a project and we kind of push each other’s buttons, well then it’s like, “Well, so what makes sense to you?”
That is an important question for me to just prime myself so that we can come together potentially and create a new path forward together. That whole idea of curiosity is our brains are really good at feeling right and feeling righteous and we have a little bit of an addiction to being right, right? That part of our brain that lights up when we get to say, “I told you so” feels so glorious even though we might not want to admit it.
The reality is, in every situation, there’s always things we don’t know about ourselves, about the other people, about the situation and so that’s where that idea of using the tool of curiosity not as an only tool, but as something, can become really powerful.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you mentioned it before is that you can’t free every elephant out there. Sometimes there’s just too much to overcome but what are some of the changes you could expect to see once one has been successfully freed?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yeah and what I might clarify is we can always free the elephant, we might not resolve the conflict and what I mean by that is, if I am, let’s say I am avoiding having an important conversation and maybe I spent some time reflecting for myself and I make the choice to say, “I’m still not going to have the conversation because I don’t feel safe” or “I’m just not in the headspace to have it.”
I mean, I’ve essentially freed the elephant for myself because I am acting from a place of choice. I’ve acknowledged it for myself, right? But it is possible that the conflict or the situation might not be resolved or we might not move towards a solution that we want but a lot of times, what can happen is you know, one of three things, right? We can get clarity, we could get potentially collaboration or we could get closure.
Maybe I decide to have a conversation with you — let’s say you’re my coworker and I muster up the courage, right? Maybe my assumptions about you not being open are validated based off of how you responded. Well, that gives me clarity now about how you’re showing up, and that gives me clarity around how I can show up differently or whatever choices I’m going to make. So, sometimes what we get even if we don’t get the results we want is just further clarity about ourselves, the other person or the situation so that we can take a different path forward.
Sometimes we can get actual collaboration. It’s not, I never want to be Pollyanna in the sense of like, “Oh, just do this and everything will work out great.” Like again, we’re humans. We’re hangry, we get hangry and we’re tired and we’re stressed and we have conflicting values and we have different needs and we have different levels of emotional regulation, right? There is all these factors at play that are kind of working against us.
Sometimes, you can leave a conversation better for it. You go, “Where do we move forward from here?” and I’ve experienced that personally and I’ve witnessed that in other people. So, there’s a whole range of things that are possible even when again, it’s a situation where maybe we’ve thought about it, we approach it and we still don’t get what we want. I always want people and for myself to hold onto, “Did I show up in a way that was aligned with my values?”
I can’t control you but I can control me and can I at least feel good about what I tried to do. Then, how do I use this information so that I can make a decision that’s going to be best for me moving forward?
Drew Appelbaum: Now besides the book itself, you also have additional resources on your website. Can you tell us what that site is and what listeners and readers can find there?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. Our website is www.sarahnollwilson.com and that’s Sarah with an H — my whole life being asked if it’s an H or not — Sarah Noll Wilson and there is a number of different resources. We do a weekly newsletter where we talk about topics related to leadership within ourselves, personally, professionally and so there is a whole backlog of really great articles where we talk about this.
We’re in the process of finalizing a workbook that should be available come this Spring, we’ll be creating an online program to go along with that as well. We’re constantly evolving in our work, so we certainly encourage people to check back as we are creating more and more resources to support people on this path and you know, part of it for us is we are working with a team a couple of years ago.
There were some real struggles from a trust perspective and when I was mentioning to our colleague there that we are working with, I said, “You know my goal is I want you to be able to have these conversations without us because if you are having to rely on us, that limits the impact that we can make.” So we’re trying to create as many different ways to help people think differently about their conversations with themselves and with other people so that they can go forward and show up more powerfully.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Sarah, we just touched on the surface of the book here. There is so much more in the book, so much on your website but I want to say that writing a book to help folks just build relationships and to show compassion is no small feat. So, congratulations on having your book published.
Sarah Noll Wilson: Thank you. I recommend everyone to write a book because it is probably one of the most vulnerable and amazing experiences I’ve ever been through and I think if nothing else, everyone should write an acknowledgment of the people and the life they want to thank. That was one of the most powerful parts for me was taking the time to really reflect and go, “Who do I want to thank?” I think it’s an exercise we should all do.
Drew Appelbaum: I do have one question left for you, it’s the hot seat question.
Sarah Noll Wilson: Okay.
Drew Appelbaum: If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Sarah Noll Wilson: That they are far more capable of being curious and compassionate and courageous than they might think.
Drew Appelbaum: I love it. Sarah, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called, Don’t Feed the Elephants!, and you could find it on Amazon. Sarah, besides checking out the book, besides checking out your website, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
Sarah Noll Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. I’m on all of the major social media channels. Very active on Twitter and LinkedIn and feel free to direct message. We work to be a really accessible team, we know that these topics are hard and so feel free to connect with us on social media, send us direct messages. You can connect with us by email, which is just [email protected].
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today, and best of luck with your new book.
Sarah Noll Wilson: Thanks, Drew.