Dear Coach: I’m Being Pigeonholed

August 11, 2022   |   Lesli Mones

What’s the Problem?

Dear Coach,

I’m someone who is often ready and willing to call out the “undiscussables”—the topics and problems that no one else wants to talk about, like the proverbial elephant in the room. I’m good at confronting what others ignore, and while this is one of my superpowers, I don’t want to be pigeonholed or penalized for being the one who always brings up difficult topics.

How can I continue to broach these conversations without being labeled as a ‘pot-stirrer.’ or worse??


The “Undiscussable” Discusser


First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:

  • You don’t believe anyone else in your organization does or can do what you do. However, it could be that they’re bringing things up in private or in a different style that seems less confrontational. 
  • You see “confronting” and “calling out” undiscussables as one and the same. In other words, you believe that bringing up an undiscussable must be a confrontation.
  • Your fear of being pigeonholed tells us that your primary concern lies in how others perceive you. 

So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:

  • You might not even realize an additional problem: the lack of stylistic diversity or knowing how to adapt your communications to different situations.
  • You seem to be in a “speaking truth to power” mode, which can be useful in some contexts, but not all.
  • You assume that because something isn’t being discussed, A) it should be, and B) others are resistant to talk about it, which may not always be the case. 
  • The issue is not just about you bringing something up, it’s about you doing it in a way that’s not sufficiently inclusive—meaning, in a way that doesn’t invite people into the conversation or encourage them to build on the points you are making. what you’re bringing up. 

What’s the Solution?

You must be equally concerned and interested in developing a range of communication styles as you are about being pigeonholed. You must understand that the problem of being pigeonholed isn’t about the behavior of bringing something up per se, but more so about having only one default way of doing so. 

A good first step is to simply experiment with not bringing up the elephant in the room and observing what happens when you sit back. Do others eventually bring it up? Can you contribute in different ways when you’re not busy pushing forward the undiscussables?

Some actionable steps to get there include: 

  • Experiment with asking questions versus making declarative statements. Try, “Is this something we should be discussing? Will this help us achieve our outcomes?” versus, “We need to talk about this.”
  • Ask yourself, how else could I contribute if I didn’t bring in elephants? 
  • Experiment with talking to people offline. If there’s a topic you see as critical, share your perspective with colleagues privately, get their thoughts, and encourage them to bring it up in their own way.
  • Remember that not every undiscussable is germane to the conversation. Ask yourself if the topic is critical to the current conversation and does in fact need to be brought up now. 
  • Oftentimes one’s identity as a “surfacer” makes them less curious about additional dynamics hiding beneath the surface. Learn how to raise topics with curiosity and openness in a way that feels inclusive and welcoming for others to engage.  

Best of luck!

Each month we answer questions we often get from the leaders we work with and unpack how at the end of the day, every problem is a power problem. If you have an issue you just can’t solve, get in touch! We’d love to answer your questions in an upcoming Dear Coach post. Find us at [email protected], or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.