Undiscussable: Pressing Pause and Play

Have you ever been in a meeting where the topic was controversial, and everyone tiptoed around communicating the undiscussable elephant in the room? Did you think about saying something but held back? Did you speak in an indirect way hoping somebody would connect with what you wanted to say? Did you walk out of the room wondering how things could have gone differently? Did you feel a sense of regret for not speaking up? Did you blame others in the place because it was their meeting and their job to get the issues on the table?

If you have experienced some form of the scene above and walked away feeling you could do more, you are in excellent company!

In companies of any size, some topics are undiscussable for no other reason than we believe we are civil by not bringing them up. We think it’s somebody else’s problem to deal with or we don’t feel safe, so we go back to minding our own business. Simply put, we press STOP.

If we take our time, learn a few tactics, and prepare ourselves to contribute, we can efficiently move beyond STOP and toward PAUSE and PLAY in our communications.

Creating Conditions for Healthy Discussions

There are practical ways to minimize the undiscussables and create a healthier, more productive team dynamic and company culture.

  1. Check out your motives first.
    • If your motive is to increase awareness and understanding in the room for everyone, that’s a great place to start. Press PLAY.
    • If your motive is to prove that you’re right, press PAUSE. Motive matters in leadership and conversation, and spending a bit of time to make sure yours serves others is always a right place to start.
    • Once you have a motive that serves others, press PLAY.
  2. Make sure it is safe.
    • If withering sarcasm is coming from one or more people in the room, it is not safe.
    • Set ground rules of no personal attacks as a starting point.
    • Keep people focused by requiring them to paraphrase the previous speaker’s comments or lose their turn. This increases listening and empathy skills.
    • If a member of the team has raised his energy level to shout, veins pulsing or hands shaking, press PAUSE and take the time to allow calm to return.
    • Emotional people do not make good audiences. Speaking in soft tones at low volume helps diffuse the emotion. Calling a 10-minute break for a walkabout can also help.
    • Once you have reached safety, press PLAY.
  3. Talk about what you observe, not the story about what you see.
    • Humans see things and immediately add assumptions, meanings, and conclusions based on our view of the world. Press PAUSE.
    • Before speaking, think about what you witnessed in the form of actions, physical appearance, or words used. Be aware of the stories you are creating about why somebody is doing something, especially in the absence of data.
    • Press PLAY and check in with the people using tentative language rather than declaring their intentions. You don’t know their plans unless they tell you and then they may mask their real intent. An example of using tentative language is, “Max, I understand that your point of view is that Sarah hasn’t provided enough communication to you and the team, and that is leading to unwelcome surprises. Do I have that right?”
  4. If you aren’t sure whether you are having the right conversation, press PAUSE.
    • There are times when the audience is not appropriate for a discussion. In those cases, press PAUSE and take a note to catch up with the person one-on-one after the meeting. The last thing you want to do is embarrass somebody in front of their peers or team members. Shaming isn’t a winning strategy to build relationships.
    • There are times when the topic is on your mind, but the meeting is about something else. Press PAUSE. Take the matter offline and handle it one-on-one.
    • Once you determine you are about to have the right conversation, press PLAY.
  5. Is speaking up a career limiting move? Press PAUSE to check.
    • If your motive makes the team and company better, you have checked for safety while using tentative language, and believe the audience and topic is the right one for your comments. Press PLAY.
    • If you are still unsure and will have another opportunity to have this discussion, press PAUSE. Find a trusted peer or outside coach that you can practice your words on and get their inputs. Importantly, if the trusted peer has a bias toward silence, take that into account in their guidance to you. Their insecurity, whether justified or not, is not yours to own.
    • Once you decide that the cost of staying silent is too high and that your team and the company needs your voice, press PLAY.


One of the most challenging things to do as an employee or leader is to speak up about undiscussable topics. Having these hidden in plain sight has a chilling effect on our teams and culture. Often, the fact that a list of things is off limits becomes the discussion point in the hallways and, de facto, becomes the company’s culture. It doesn’t have to be this way.

High-performance companies tend to value straight talk communication and minimize the topics that are off limits. If your team suffers from undiscussables, learn to speak up and help others move through the discomfort. Pressing PLAY is a big part of creating the kind of company where we all wish to work.