Fierce Conversations is one of a small handful of books that I consistently recommend to my clients. This book is best suited to managers and leaders in profit and nonprofit organizations, but any person who lives and works with other humans—which is to say, all of us—would benefit by reading it.
Susan Scott, the author, argues that all relationships stand or fall on the quality of the conversations the parties are having. She also argues that all conversations are with yourself and, occasionally, they include other people. By extension then, the relationship you have with yourself stands or falls on the quality of the conversations you have with you.
I believe this is spot on. My coaching is substantially focused on the conversations that we have with ourselves. Although Scott doesn’t go into theory at all, we humans construct our understanding of the world with language. We have no other tool to make sense of and engage the world at a conscious level (clearly, there are processes within us that do not use language (regulating our body temperature, for example), but these processes are unconscious and so out of our awareness). How well we use this tool–language–determines to an extraordinary degree the quality of our life. If our conversations about the world are cockeyed, then the world will appear to us as cockeyed—leading to pain, suffering, and failure to thrive.
To be clear, “fierce,” as Scott uses it, does not mean vicious, menacing, or cruel. She defines it as “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager, unbridled, uncurbed, and untamed,” which is the dictionary definition of the word. Alternatively, we could call a fierce conversation an authentic or real conversation, one that is straight, responsible, and unstinting in its commitment to reality and the humanity of the participants.
Although Scott doesn’t say this explicitly, she implies it: To have Fierce Conversations requires us to be Fierce ourselves. To be courageous, vulnerable, and committed to a higher goal than our own self-interest.
Communicating as if your life depended on it
As an aside, a second book that I frequently recommend to clients is Getting Real by Susan Campbell. Campbell takes a different approach to authentic communication but is headed in an identical direction–using communication to open up and enrich our relationships. If you can’t communicate effectively, life won’t work well for you. Read both books—there is much to learn from each.
What is a Fierce Conversation?
Scott lays out seven principles or characteristics of fierce conversations.
1) Interrogate reality
Two principles here: first, dig deep to determine what’s going on. You cannot make good decisions unless you have a solid understanding of the facts. But, even if you have a solid understanding of the facts, you may not have a sufficient or effective interpretation of the facts. This leads to the second principle. Check-in with others to learn how they are seeing the situation. No person has a lock on “reality,” at best, we apprehend only a piece of it. Like the Indian fable of the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant—no one person can grasp the full form of the beast. Incorporating many people’s points of view will give you a better idea of reality than relying on only your own. A corollary to this is to not argue over different perceptions of the same situation—grow your understanding of reality, don’t diminish it.
No one owns the truth. Each of us owns a piece of it.
2) Be authentic
If you are hiding behind your ego or your concern for being right, looking good, etc. you will not be contributing powerfully to your conversations.
Authenticity is not something you have; it is something you choose.
3) Be present
Be 100% tuned into every conversation you are having. Do not be thinking about what you are going to say next, or what a dork your conversant is, or your coming vacation. Ask questions, limit your talking.
You can hear every word and yet miss the message entirely.
4) Do the hardest stuff first
We tend to shuffle the tough issues under the bed and hope they go away. These are conversations avoided—not engaged. The problem with unaddressed issues is that they permeate throughout an organization undermining team morale and effectiveness.
Reasons or results: your choice.
5) Follow your gut
Pay attention to your instincts—don’t tune them out. If something doesn’t feel right—go to step one above and interrogate reality.
As an aside, I am less enthusiastic about this step than Scott is. Intuitions can be wrong (this, she acknowledges briefly), and if you believe your intuitions should trump rational thinking and real-world evidence, you are likely to careen down a path of delusion. Every client I have ever worked with has come to me with intuitions, which they believed to be true, but which, on a closer look, turned out to made up.
If you ignore your gut, it will eventually stop speaking to you.
6) Be responsible for your “emotional wake”
What you say and how you say it affects the people you live and work with. Be attentive to your impact, particularly if you are in a leadership position.
This is an important principle, as many people think that being authentic (#2 above) means saying whatever comes into their heads. Putting your inner thoughts on megaphone is not authenticity. Much of what comes into our heads is generated from inauthenticities that we haven’t rooted out or which we may be unconscious of.
The challenge is to reconcile being real and doing no harm.
7) Use silence
Silence is golden—it gives you and the others in the conversation time to think, to feel, and to struggle whatever demons they may have that are preventing them from being fully in the conversation. Silence is a gift.
Silence makes us nervous–as do innovation, chagne, and genius.
When conversations have an unstinting commitment to reality, are straight, and encourage the contributions of everyone involved, an organization will see its employees blossom. Benefits include:
- A focus on results–not activities; greater accountability
- Greater alignment within the team and organization
- Clear priorities; less overwhelm
- More effective leadership; no micromanaging
- Engaged customers
- Enthusiasm for learning and new ideas
- Effective confrontation of problems, underperformance, and mediocrity
Fierce Conversation Templates
Scott provides templates that help with each of the conversations she describes. Among them, for the conflict-phobes, a template for productively working through a “confrontational” conversation.
Fear of being known, revealed, or changed keeps our conversations safe and wimpy. The risk of a fierce conversation is that you will be known, revealed, and changed. Accept the risk.
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time
Susan Scott (Fierce, Inc.)
Berkley Books, 2002