Mastering The Art Of Fierce Conversations

There are certain conversations we all dread: the ones in which we have to deliver bad news, discuss a sensitive or “political” subject, or talk about a project that’s gone wrong. Have you ever recognized too late that a client was frustrated because you failed to resolve an issue? Or perhaps spent time cleaning up in the aftermath of a discussion that didn’t go according to plan? In a polite society, we are generally hardwired to avoid confrontation. Nobody wants to play the bad guy or have a situation blow up in their face. But often the cost of NOT having these conversations can be far costlier than the temporary discomfort you may feel. You want to take charge and talk about it – candidly and effectively. But how??

One of the best business books I’ve read on this subject is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (SS). In this book, she provides the tools we all need to master the art of “difficult” conversations.

AM: How do you personally define “fierce conversations”? SS: The word “fierce” wakes me up. Synonyms include robust, unbridled, uncurbed, untamed. A bit unnerving, and exhilarating. The simplest definition of a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into the conversation, and make it real. Such conversations are rare, because most people are deeply uncomfortable with real. Having worked with people all over the world, at all levels within organizations, it seems to me that withholding what we really think and feel is a global pandemic, resulting in costly, painful outcomes for all of us. The economic meltdown occurred gradually then suddenly, one failed, one missing conversation at a time. Based on results, it is the unreal conversations that should concern us. They are incredibly expensive for individuals, couples, teams, organizations, for countries, for our planet.

AM: What are 3 recommendations you would give to someone who is trying to make each conversation they share in, as real as possible? SS: Consider that a careful conversation is a failed conversation, because it only postpones the conversation that wants and needs to take place.

1. Ask yourself: a. “What are the conversations in my life – personal or professional – that want and need to take place?” “What conversation am I avoiding with myself?” b. “What am I winning by avoiding these conversations or by withholding my real thoughts and feelings?” c. What might I win if I could have conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, resolve tough challenges and enrich relationships?”

2. Commit to having these conversations within the next 30 days and prepare for each one. Learn HOW to say what has seemed unsayable, to ask what has seemed unaskable, to suggest… well, you get the drift. Get good at describing reality from where you sit, without laying blame and you’ll be fine. Read Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life – One Conversation at a Time.

3. Sit beside someone you care for and begin.

AM: How do you quiet your environment in order to stay focused? SS: For conversations with others, no matter what’s going on around us, I practice Principle #3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else. It helps that I taught in an open classroom for several years. Five high school classes in the same large room, separated only by panels about five feet high. I had to keep my students focused on whatever we were doing. I got very good at tuning out everything going on beyond the partitions and I think that in part, because I was so present and focused, it helped my students stay engaged. The thing that helps me most, though, is that I firmly believe (because I’ve seen it a thousand times) that our careers, our companies, our personal relationships and indeed, our very lives, succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time. And that the conversation is the relationship. Every conversation I have, whether it’s with one person or one thousand, either enriches the relationship, flatlines it (so what’s the point) or takes it down. I wouldn’t be able to forget this if I wanted to.

For fierce conversations with myself, I wake up around 4am, fix coffee and sit quietly, letting the thoughts that awakened me, further clarify themselves. I ask myself if there is a message for me, and listen. I ask what is the most important thing I need to accomplish today? Then I make sure I do it.

AM: Can you describe an instance when a conversation failed to produce the results you wanted. SS: It may sound odd, but sometimes walking away is a valid way to “rectify” a conversation that doesn’t produce the results you want. I left a long-term relationship with a man who was very important to me, after years of failed and missing conversations led to my realization that, while I loved him, I did not love our life together. It was my fault, as much as his. At that time in my life, I rarely took responsibility for my emotional wake and consequently, made every mistake possible in trying to get him to talk with me. For his part, he was literally incapable of being open and honest. The facade he had spent many years polishing to a high gloss would have ceased to exist if he had disclosed his real thoughts, feelings, and actions. I feel sadness when I recall our numerous failed conversations, but I am so glad I left the relationship. I would rather be with someone who tells the truth, as he or she understands it, or else alone.

In general, a well-oiled reverse gear can do wonders to rectify a conversation that went south. In the middle of conversations, I have stopped and apologized for being argumentative, raising my voice, talking over someone. I am a passionate woman, a red-headed Leo. I’m hard-wired to move towards and into a conversational fray, rather than withdraw. When I get triggered, heat rises in my face, my eyes flash, words can become weapons. About 99% of the time, when I recognize that I’m triggered and that people are inwardly heading for the hills, I can manage to quickly get myself un-triggered and return to soft-spoken, reasonable, respectful.

And once in awhile, I let ‘er rip. I choose to be bad. It’s a bit of a rush, lasting a few seconds, then I have to get out the mop and pail and clean up the aftermath of my emotional wake. Since that isn’t much fun, I don’t let it happen very often.

AM: What is the single greatest piece of advice you’ve received? SS: I offer two pieces of advice in relation to being true to yourself, both are in Fierce Conversations. I read the first one around 20 years ago. I don’t recall where I read it, but it blazed itself across my head and heart. 1. “No one and no thing will ever be enough until you are enough.” So, it isn’t the “stuff” I own, the car I drive, the company I keep, the income I earn, etc., that brings me lasting joy, serenity, deep contentment. It is my relationship with myself that matters. What I think of me. The second piece of advice was provided by a former colleague, Pat Murray . 2. “If you want to see someone in real pain, watch someone who knows who he is and defaults on it on a regular basis.” When we attempt to project images we imagine others desire, we run the very real risk of waking up one morning unrecognizable to ourselves.

Susan Scott is a recognized thought leader in the global business community, and best-selling author of Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life – One Conversation at a Time and Fierce Leadership, A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today. Susan was the recipient of the 2008 Stevie award for Entrepreneur of the Year. She is the founder and CEO of Fierce, Inc. (Seattle), an award winning global training company which has helped top executives worldwide – at companies like Coca Cola, Starbucks, Cisco, WalMart, Four Seasons Hotel, BP, GE, Alaska Airlines, Yahoo, General Dynamics, the Federal Reserve, Macy’s, Crate and Barrel, Google, Ernst & Young and more – bring about large-scale transformation by teaching them how to create candid, meaningful dialogue with each other, with their employees, and with their customers.