ScoFier 09-05-75

Fierce Conversations

Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time


Susan Scott

Viking, 2002, 266 pp., ISBN 0-670-01324-0



Susan Scott is an internationally recognized leader in executive education.  This book will help you gain the insight and skills to make every conversation count.  The author's desire is to change the world--one conversation at a time. 


Our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time.  (Foreword)


Introduction: The Idea of Fierce

We must discard the idea that our home and office conversations are quite different.  "When you squeeze an orange, what comes out of it?  Orange juice.  Why?  Because that's what's inside it."  "When we get squeezed--when things aren't going well for us--what comes out of us?  Whatever's inside us."  "So if your conversations at work are yielding disappointing results, I'd be willing to bet you're getting similar results at home."  (5) 


"The conversation is the relationship.  If the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller and all of the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller…"  "…if we compromise at work or at home; if we lower the standards about how often we talk, what we talk about, and, most important, what degree of authenticity we bring to our conversations--it's a slow and deadly slide." (6) 


"Each conversation we have with our coworkers, customers, significant others, and children either enhances those relationships, flat-lines them, or takes them down." (7) 


"A fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real." (7) 


"Whoever said talk is cheap was mistaken.  Unreal conversations are incredibly expensive for organizations and for individuals." (7) 


"Fierce conversations are about moral courage, clear requests, and taking action.  Fierce is an attitude.  A way of conducting business.  A way of leading.  A way of life." (10) 


Principle 1.  Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality

"No plan survives its collision with reality.  The problem is, reality has an irritating habit of shifting….  Things change."  (13)  "The world will not be managed." (15) 


"You will find yourself continually thwarted in your best efforts…unless reality is regularly and thoroughly examined." (15) 


The Corporate Nod.  People don't say what they are really thinking.  "Companies and marriages derail because people don't say what they are really thinking." (19)  "One of the goals in a fierce conversation is to get everyone's reality out on the table, so it can be interrogated.  Everyone's!" (23)


Three stages of interrogating reality.  1.  Identify the issue on the table and your proposed solution.  2.  Check to see that everyone understands.  3.  Check for agreement.  Be sure you get everyone's input and resist the temptation to defend your idea.  "Real thinking occurs only when everyone is engaged in exploring differing viewpoints." (27) 


"If you're drilling for water, it's better to drill one hundred-foot well than one hundred one-foot wells."  A conversation of this nature interrogates reality by mining for increased clarity, improved understanding, and impetus for change."  The author calls these Mineral Rights conversations.  Drill down deep on a topic by asking a series of questions to accomplish four purposes:

  1. Interrogate reality
  2. Provoke learning
  3. Tackle tough challenges
  4. Enrich relationships  (39) 


Ground truth is a military term that refers to what is actually happening on the ground as opposed to the official battle tactics.  In any organization it is worth getting to ground truth.  The official truth is officially circulated but the ground truth is expressed around the water cooler and the parking lot.  (47) 


We must determine whether our assumptions match current reality. (51) 


"I have not yet witnessed a spontaneous recovery from incompetence."  Every organization must ask whether we have the talented people we need to successfully deliver our product or service.  "As a leader, you get what you tolerate.  People do not repeat behavior unless it is rewarded."  "Have you communicated clearly not only the results but also the behavior that you wanted?  What about attitude?" (60)  "Hire attitude.  Train skill." (61) 


"The quality of our lives is largely determined by the quality of the questions we ask--and the quality of our answers." (64)


Principle 2.  Come Out from Behind Yourself into the Conversation and Make It Real

"What are you pretending not to know?" (70)


"While the desire to please is not a flaw, at crucial crossroads we sometimes go too far.  Way too far.  When faced with a so-called moment of truth, we find ourselves chucking the truth over the fence or tucking it behind the drapes in exchange for a trinket of approval." (710 


"Annie Dillard wrote, 'How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.'  How are you spending your days, your life?" (81)


List the fierce conversations you need to have with others.  Write down the name of the person and a sentence or two about the topic.  (84) 


Drill down through a series of questions: (87 ff)

  1. Identify your most pressing issue.
  2. Clarify the issue.  What's going on?  How long?  How bad is it?
  3. Determine the current impact.  How is this impacting me?  What is being produced?  How is it impacting others? 
  4. Determine the future implications.
  5. Examine your personal contribution to this issue.
  6. Describe the ideal outcome. 
  7. Commit to action.  What is the most potent first step for me?  What will get in the way and how will I get around it.  When do I start?


Principle 3.  Be Here, Prepared to Be Nowhere Else

"Humans share a universal longing to be known and, being known, to be loved." (91)  "Only when we genuinely see the people who are important to us can we hope to succeed as agents for positive change."  "We must transform the way we speak, the way we ask, the way we listen….by really asking and really listening."  (92) 


"While someone is talking, where are your thoughts?"  "While you're talking with someone on the telephone, do you scan your e-mail?  And can you tell when someone else is scanning his?" (94)  "For [personal] relationships to move forward and upward, you must have fierce affection for the other person.  You must have genuine curiosity about what is going on with that person at any given time.  You must have an insatiable appetite for learning more every day about who he or she is…."  (96)  "One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships." (97) 


"What if you're so unengaged or unengaging that nobody hears you, nobody really listens to you, nobody really responds to you?  Perhaps you're too polite.  Or too self-conscious.  Or two self-absorbed.  Or too politically correct.  Or too cautious.  The net result?  Unconsciously, we end our conversations as soon as we initiate them, too afraid of what we might say or hear." (98) 


One of the fiercest conversations is to tell someone how important he or she is in our lives, how much we value and love that person. 


"There is so much more to listen to than words.  Listen to the whole person." (103) 


Once a month ask each of your key people to explore his or her most important issues with you.  (108) 


Ask about their emotions.  Emotions propel us to action. 


Common mistakes in one-to-one conversations: (109-110)

  1. Doing most of the talking
  2. Taking the problem away from someone
  3. Not inquiring about feelings
  4. Delivering unclear messages, coaching, instructions
  5. Canceling the meeting
  6. Allowing interruptions
  7. Running out of time
  8. Assuming your meetings are effective


An outline of a conversation meant to dig deep (a "mineral rights" conversation):

  1. What is the most important thing for us to talk about?
  2. What's going on relative to this issue?
  3. How is it impacting you?  Who else is affected?
  4. If nothing changes, what are the implications?
  5. How have you contributed to this situation?
  6. What is the ideal outcome?
  7. What is the most potent step you can take to begin resolution?


Debrief this conversation by asking yourself:  (113)

  1. Was I genuinely curious about this person and their reality?
  2. Did I work to understand reality from where he/she stands?
  3. Did feelings get expressed?
  4. What parts of me failed to show up?
  5. Who did most of the talking?


Good Questions to Ask (a few from a longer list):

n  What has become clear since we last met?

n  What are you trying to make happen in the next three months?

n  What's the most important decision you're facing?

n  What topic are you hoping I won't bring up?

n  What part of your responsibilities are you avoiding right now?

n  What do you wish you had more time to do?

n  If you were hired to consult with our company, what would you advise?


In these digging-out-reality (mineral rights) conversations, my secret rule is to only ask questions until I have dug out all I can.  The practice of taking the conversation away from other people and making it about ourselves is a huge relationship killer and waste of time. (117)


Principle 4.  Tackle Your Toughest Challenge Today

Ongoing problems in an organization often stem from root issues.  Moles are a nuisance and they proliferate because they eat the grubs in the ground.  Go for the root cause.  "Make it your job as a leader to give up mole whacking and take up grub hunting."  (127) 


Follow a format for discussing issues.

n  The issue is:  (Be concise and get to the heart of the problem, challenge, or opportunity.  Where does the problem originate?  How does the system reward it?  What is the root cause?  )

n  It is significant because:  (What's at stake?)

n  My ideal outcome is: (What specific results do you want?)

n  Relevant background information: (Summarize with bullet points)

n  What I have done up to this point: (Summarize)

n  The help I want from the group is:


Five common errors in confronting behavior: (142-147)

n  Begin by asking how's it going

n  Using praise as a lead-in

n  Softening the message to avoid hurting feelings.  Replace pillows with clear requests.

n  Assuming we know what the other person will say. Consequently we may not really hear them.

n  Blasting with machine gun talk.  Go straight to the issue; say it in 60 seconds, and then invite your partner to talk.


In 60 seconds make your opening statement about a behavior issue: (149) 

n  Name the issue.

n  Describe a specific example.

n  Describe your emotions about the issue.

n  Clarify what is at stake.

n  Identify your contribution to this problem.

n  Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.

n  Invite your partner to respond.


"Fierce conversations cannot be dependent on how others respond."  "If you know something must change, then know that it is you who must change it.  Your job is to extend the invitation."  "My experience is that when the invitation is extended with grace and skill, it will be accepted, even by those you have almost given up on." (154)  "When we confront behavior with courage and skill, we are offering a gift." (161)   "Healthy relationships require appreciation and confrontation." (163)


Principle 5.  Obey Your Instincts


Principle 6.  Take Responsibility for Your Emotional Wake

"There are people who take the heart out of you and there are people who put it back." (187, quoting Elizabeth David)


"For a leader, there is no trivial comment.  Something you might not even remember saying may have had a devastating impact on someone looking to you for guidance and approval.  By the same token, something you said years ago may have encouraged and inspired someone who is grateful to you to this day. Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake.  Positive or negative.  Our individual wakes are larger than we know.  An emotional wake is what you remember after I'm gone.  What you feel.  The aftermath, aftertaste, or afterglow." (187) 


"What do I want them to remember when I'm gone?  I need to say that, and only that…clearly!" (191)


"A negative emotional wake is…created at times by a lack of appreciative comments." (192)


"If there is any possibility that people don't know how much you value them, there's a conversation that needs to occur."  Appreciation is a truly value-creating activity.  Be specific about what you like, love, or appreciate about them.  (194-95)


Principle 7.  Let Silence Do the Heavy Lifting

"An American characteristic is general discomfort with silence in conversations, homes, working places."  (222)  The more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required. (223)  Begin to wean yourself from noise.  (227) 


"Never mistake talking for conversation." (228)  "Silence is the best-kept secret for generating family dialogue." (234) 


Challenge: "I will allow spaciousness in my conversations, so that before I speak, I can reflect on what others have said.  I will invite my partners to do the same.  In doing so, I hope to get closer to what is authentic and valuable." (238)



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