Picture of  Deborah M. Osborne

Deborah M. Osborne

Athena Agreements’ founder Deborah M. Osborne is a certified negotiation and conflict resolution expert with 20+ years of experience and over 500 cases under her belt.



Being uncomfortable to approach a sensitive issue or controversial topic could be just the tip of the iceberg, a warning sign that the mediation or the negotiation is unlikely to succeed. It’s often better to approach the Elephant in the Room rather than let it fall by the wayside. This is especially important when the unvoiced irritation of the parties distracts them from progressing toward a resolution they set out to achieve together. 

There are LEGITIMATE REASONS to discuss sensitive issues and controversial topics:

  1. We cannot be our authentic selves when we cannot talk openly about what’s really on our minds and “What bugs us.” 
  1. Lack of openness and honesty breeds contempt, distrust and divisiveness if we are not earnest. 

Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

  1. Parties that are upset about an issue may lash out at each other due to pent-up anger and frustration, putting each other on the defensive and hindering progress in the negotiation.
  1. Parties that shut down because they feel powerless to broach an Elephant in the Room can prevent good change from happening for them, which is why mediation is a helpful tool for parties to consider to chase down the Elephant. 

The fundamental principle of “negotiating in good faith” diminishes when tensions mount. This can play out in many ways. Participants in the negotiation may shut down because people generally avoid conflict. An Elephant in the Room compounds the problem. No communication leads to an impasse. A seasoned mediator can assist the parties in discussions on topics that they believe are impossible to broach and resolve on their own. 

You’ve probably experienced the Elephant sometime in your life. It’s not a figment of your imagination.

 According to the Oxford dictionary, the Elephant in the Room is:

A major problem or controversial issue that is obviously present but avoided as a subject of discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.

The Elephant feeds off our apprehensiveness to explore the problem, but we can change that.


1. Be Your Authentic Self 

Being authentic and earnest at conveying to others how we feel about a sensitive issue is often a step in the right direction to chase down the Elephant. When we choose to talk about a controversial topic and listen to one another, even if we are unable to agree “eye to eye,” we can experience a huge sigh of relief. “No more Elephant in the Room.” “Now, we’re being honest.” It’s a sign of growth, maturity and self-respect and it reinforces our identity. In The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, author William Ury describes that when escalating conflict is addressed through a “third side” inclusive of neutrals, the parties have  a safe container to raise their concerns and discomfort with one another. “Within that container conflict can gradually be transformed from confrontation to cooperation” (Ury 2000:7).

We don’t have to try so hard knocking each other down to get what we need.

From experience, authentic people gain more and improve their chance of a successful outcome in a mediation. The gain can be defined in many ways—it’s up to the parties. Examples include gains that are tangible, relational and culturally valuable. If the parties are willing to listen to each other there’s a chance they will depart with fresh insights, a new perspective and possibly a revised or a shared viewpoint. Sure, it may take more than one conversation to address a matter, but healthy engagement is worth its weight in gold. Taking a risk and discussing tough topics is better than letting negotiations founder. 

2. Have a Learning Conversation

In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors Stone, Patton and Heen address the importance of having learning conversations (Difficult Conversations: 2000). In a learning conversation we are willing to come together to broach a subject without needing to declare a winner or come to a consensus. The importance of the learning conversation is to learn. Perhaps we are missing information. Once we learn more, we may feel differently.  People usually agree to have learning conversations out of respect for each other. The conversation helps them gather information to determine whether the judgement they formed of the other person is accurate. One person may not realize they are upsetting the other. They need to hear what’s wrong without being put on the defensive. 

Even though huge progress may not be made during the learning conversation, participants are likely to learn a lot and may feel better after having one. The practice of listening and being earnest and authentic about difficult topics can lower tensions and set the stage for a successful negotiation. The authors of Difficult Conversations strongly encourage parties to “prepare in advance for the conversation.” Being prepared helps keep the conversation grounded on the topic and prevents a dissolution into ad hominem attacks.

3. Caucus, as needed

A private meeting or caucus provides a party a safe haven to explore issues and raise concerns without the other party present. A party that takes advantage of a caucus in mediation can explore with the mediator how the party wants to proceed about an Elephant. The mediator serves as the sounding board. The party may want the mediator to take the concern to the other party. Or, perhaps the Elephant is not interfering with the gains the party could achieve in the negotiation and the party decides against broaching the Elephant. Sensitive issues and controversial topics are matters worth vetting in caucus with an experienced neutral to determine one’s best course forward. How the parties wish to proceed in the mediation is their decision. However, the mediator should recap with the party at the end of its caucus that it captured everything correctly before returning to the joint session or caucusing with another party.

4. Tap into Negotiation and Mediation Experts

Surely, the parties must feel comfortable with addressing sensitive issues meaningfully and respectfully and there’s no better place to conduct that than in the safe container of mediation. An experienced and perceptive mediator or a negotiation expert with a conflict resolution background is well-suited for the task.

When parties seek voluntary mediation, they design the process with the mediator. Typically, mediators plan time for caucuses. The mediator and parties can call a caucus. Each party should be given equal time with the mediator. Confidentiality rules for mediators are issued by federal and state courts and regulations, policy and statutes also exist depending on the jurisdiction of the matter. The parties can also draft their own confidentiality agreement with the mediator. It may benefit the parties to create a specially tailored mediation agreement for business disputes, multiparty and environmental negotiations, and multinational and intercultural conflicts.

Mediations that are multinational and intercultural can benefit from co-mediators of different ethnicities and countries of origins or mediators that are sensitive to the tangible, relational and cultural dimensions of a dispute. These experts bring unique expertise to the process and will help the parties navigate the sensitive issues and controversial topics.

Reach out to a neutral third party, a mediator or negotiator with process expertise that will maintain composure and guide you and the other parties in discussions. If you find this content interesting and want to know more about the work we do at Athena Agreements, visit https://AthenaAgreements.com

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