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.
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.