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Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

December 28th, 2009 No comments

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

a fierce bald eagle in defensive mode

My stand-out book of the year for 2009 is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This book was recommended to me this autumn by five different people who heard about my interest in conversation for change, so it arrived at just the right time for me.

The book is about how to have ‘real’ conversations about the things that really matter, with the people that really matter. While the book contains a lot of practical techniques and exercises to try, it is more than a set of top tips – the core of the book is about helping you decide the kind of person you want to be when in conversation. Do you want to be someone who plays safe and keeps every conversation light, or do you want to take the risk of being seen for who you are, and perhaps being changed?

The book is also packed with nice one-liners and quotes that help to keep the main messages memorable.

I’ll be writing a series of posts summarising some of the key ideas in the book, mainly to help me make sense of them for myself, by putting them into my own words. But I’ve also been trying to act on what I have read, so I may well reflect on that too.

So, what is a ‘fierce conversation’, and why would you want to have one? The best place to start is with the book’s Introduction: the idea of fierce.

Why are ‘fierce conversations’ good for you?

What is a fierce conversation?

‘Fierce’ can sound threatening, cruel or scary. But Scott intends it in a different way – for her ‘fierce’ means passionate, intense, robust, strong, unbridled and untamed.

In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.

‘Fierce’ doesn’t quite do it for me – I can’t shake the feeling of aggression or threat that goes with that word. So I tend to talk instead about ‘powerful conversations’ or ‘effective conversations’, or just ‘conversations for change’. Not quite as passionate as Scott’s phrase, but then that may say something about me 😉

What are conversations like when they are not ‘fierce’?

Scott adapts a quotation from Ernest Hemingway to argue that “our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” She paints a picture of avoided or unsuccessful conversations, where nothing real is said, relationships fail, tough challenges are avoided and no one learns anything.

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, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence, making ourselves smaller in every encounter, behaving as if we are just the space around our shoes, engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles…

Many work teams as well as couples have a list of undiscussables, issues they avoid broaching at all costs in order to preserve a modicum of peace, to preserve the relationship. In reality, the relationship steadily deteriorates for lack of the very conversations they so carefully avoid. It’s difficult to raise the level if the slide has lasted over a period of years, and that’s what keeps many of us stuck.

Ouch. Not easy to read, particularly if it reminds you – as it does me – of conversations you are having or failing to have. In Scott’s view, each conversation has the potential to enhance our relationships, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges and interrogate reality. No single conversation can be guaranteed to do these things, but every conversation can.

Scott observes at various points in the book that “when the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation has even ended.” That was certainly true of the powerful conversation I had earlier this year.

At home and at work

Scott considered writing separate books about fierce conversations in our personal lives and in our work lives, but decided that would have been a mistake. In her view (and in mine too) “who we are is who we are, all over the place”. We can’t separate ourselves off successfully and have different conversations at home to the ones we have at work, not in the long run.

Scott’s observation has been that people who have problems at work have similar problems at home. For me, this is also a matter of choice and authenticity (about which Scott has more to say in a later chapter). Personally I want to be the same person at home as I am at work – to talk and behave in recognisably the same way, as much as I can (recognising I am only human and won’t always achieve what I set out to achieve). If I want to tell the truth, tackle a persistent problem or have a better relationship with my partner or my children, then I can approach it in the same way as I would at work. The techniques are the same, and so are the objectives:

  • interrogating reality
  • provoking learning
  • tackling touch challenges
  • enriching relationships

And she quotes the poet David Whyte:

The conversation is the relationship.

Every conversation we have has the potential to either enhance our relationship with the people we are speaking to, or fail to do so. We have a choice about how we want to use our conversations, and how much attention we want to pay to them.

Getting started

Scott is very pragmatic in her advice to the reader; most chapters have one or more assignments to try out. She advises us to be patient with ourselves, as change takes time. We can start one conversation with a time, beginning with the next person who stands in front of us. Her advice at the end of the introduction is to:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, telling little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself. And at least once today, when something inside you says, “This is an opportunity to be fierce,” stop for a moment, take a deep breath, then come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real…

When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen. It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge. You will have said at least one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.

So, are you interested in giving it a try?

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Seeing the world in a more useful way

December 20th, 2009 No comments

In my last post I wrote about how we don’t see the world they way it is, we see the world the way we are (since writing that, I’ve learned that this is a saying that comes from the Judaic Talmud). In the entertaining and thought-provoking video below, Beau Lotto demonstrates this same point using some eye-popping optical illusions.

Seeing the world in a more useul way

Lotto shows that what we see has no inherent meaning of its own – the same visual stimulus on our retina could come from an infinite number of real-world situations. What our brains do is create meaning and significance by making some assumptions about what it is we are seeing – assumptions based on what has been useful to us to assume in the past.

So evolution explains how we see the world now – those of our ancestors that survived to pass on their genes probably made assumptions about the world that were more useful than the assumptions made by their brothers and sisters who didn’t survive. They spotted predators hiding in the bushes, for example, and reacted more quickly.

The conclusion that Lotto draws in the video clip is that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world the way it is – we can’t do that. Our brains evolved to see the world in the way it was useful to see the world in the past.

Ted Talk: Beau Lotto: optical illusions show how we see

But Lotto also makes a wider point. He argues that what is true of visual information is true of all information in general. There is no inherent meaing in information, it’s what we do with that information that matters – we make sense of it.

Making more useful assumptions

We can see this process at work in the way that we make judgements about other people, including complete strangers. We size people up by the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, how they walk and talk, and so on. We do this in ways that we are not even aware of. So within 20 seconds of meeting someone for the first time, we have decided whether we like them or not.

When we do this we are making assumptions about people based on limited information – assumptions which may have been helpful in the past. But this kind of assumption is also often wrong.

Rather than try to fight our natural tendency to make assumptions – which is nearly impossible to do – what we can do is be aware of the assumptions we are making. Notice how we are responding to other people, and ask ourselves on what information our assumptions are based. That then gives us an opportunity to seek out new information that might change our point of view – we can be more open-minded, and more generous towards the other person than we might otherwise have been.

This is very relevant when we are working with people in conflict. They will be telling themselves stories that make sense of their situations, based on assumptions that may well have helped them in the past. But there may be a more useful set of assumptions they could make instead – more useful in terms of meeting their needs. And we can help them to test out and choose to alter their assumptions.

This applies to mediators too. We need to be aware of the judgements we are making about the parties in the conflict, catch ourselves making those assumptions, and give ourselves the opportunity to change our minds as we find out more, and be open to that possibility.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.