Fierce Conversations, Part I

Copyright 2006 Tim Link

A recent conversation with a leadership coaching client I’ll call “Bob” began with him expressing extreme frustration with a key manager reporting to him. Bob thought the manager wasn’t owning his role in a certain critical issue. He believed the manager was pointing fingers, assigning blame and creating stressful and unproductive distractions within the senior team. Bob was considering firing the manager, but was reluctant to start over with someone new.

I asked Bob if he had discussed his frustration with the manager. He danced around the question and after a couple of different approaches on my part, he shared that perhaps he hadn’t been as clear and direct with the manager as he could have been. I observed that it sounded like he wanted to have a conversation with this manager. Bob agreed that he needed to talk with the manager but had been avoiding it because he knew it would be difficult and he thought the manager should be able to perform without his intervention.

The ensuing coaching conversation resulted in Bob approaching the manager and conducting a healthy dialogue and feedback session where the roles, expectations and needs of both parties were expressed and clarified. They were able to have this conversation with out tempers getting heated or a host of other potential pitfalls. Essentially, what I asked Bob to do was to have a fierce conversation with his manager.

At its essence, “doing business” is essentially an extended series of conversations, and I believe that success is dependent upon a person’s ability to regularly engage in productive and meaningful dialogue. Susan Scott, author of “Fierce Conversations,” captures this concept beautifully in her book. This one of the first books I recommend to my coaching client’s who are looking to have more productive conversations.

Over the next three issues of Coaching Link I will be offering key concepts from Ms. Scott’s book, blended with my own experience in coaching leaders. I hope these articles give you the tools and courage to have fierce conversations.

What Is a Fierce Conversation?

The word “fierce” is defined in the dictionary as “marked by extreme and violent energy.” Many people assume that a fierce conversation is one in which you confront someone head on with what they are doing wrong, that it often involves an accusatory or criticizing tone and that it will lead to negativity and bruised egos.

Rarely is anyone specifically taught how to handle conflict. We are socialized to play nice, not be rude and not to hurt other people’s feelings. On the other hand, we are encouraged to stand up for ourselves and not let anyone “push us around.” We also tend to unconsciously assume that when we have a difference of opinions, someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. We get lots of messages about the ends of the spectrum but rarely are we taught how to play nice and stand up for ourselves at the same time! This is essentially the goal of a fierce conversation.

The word “fierce” also has the following synonyms: robust, strong, powerful, passionate. In order to be truly “fierce,” we need to be centered, clear about our position, what our purpose is and what needs to be done. To have a fierce conversation, we need to open ourselves to others’ opinions, try not to let our egos take over, and focus our energy on coming to a new level of understanding about the problem. We are then able to come to an understanding of the reality of the situation, provoke learning in ourselves and others, tackle challenges that need to be addressed and ultimately, enrich relationships. A fierce conversation is not between adversaries trying to prove their position is the right one, but between colleagues looking at the issue together, striving for a higher level of understanding.

Ground Truth

In order to address a problem, you have to accurately name it first. Thus the first goal of a fierce conversation is to accurately describe what Susan Scott labels “ground truth.” Ground truth is what’s really happening in the trenches of day to day business life. Ground truth is often different than the official party line. Ground truth separates gossip and speculation from the reality of the situation.

Regardless of their official title, people who are adept at getting to ground truth are seen as leaders. They can accurately label the reality of a situation while cutting through hyperbole, gossip and speculation. Because they are able to separate fact from fiction, they make smart decisions. They tend to be less defensive and are able to be a calming influence in uncertain times.

You get to ground truth by interrogating reality. In the process of interrogating reality, you closely examine all assumptions to determine whether or not they are valid. In Bob’s case, he didn’t realize that he assumed the manager was trying to create tension in the team. Once he identified that he was making an assumption, he was able to brain storm some questions to ask the manager to test the validity of his assumption. He was also able to approach the conversation with a neutral, “let’s figure it out together” tone instead of a judgmental one. This change in perspective put the manager at ease and enabled them to have positive discussion.

To be able to effectively interrogate reality, we have to acknowledge that everyone has their own unique perspective and that each perspective is valid. If we tell ourselves or others, “they don’t know what they’re talking about because…” we are very likely to miss important information. There have been many times when someone who “doesn’t know what they’re talking about” offers insights that those of us on the inside couldn’t see. Make room at the table for all opinions and you will not only get new information, you will increase buy-in for the solution you identify.

Mineral Rights

A fierce conversation is more of an art than a science. It does not have a formula or set linear process. I can’t give you a list of questions to ask or an outcome to expect. During the course of the conversation you will be drawn to explore certain lines of questioning and not others. You will go deeper and spend more time on some areas than others. The art of having a fierce conversation comes in knowing which questions need to be asked and which ones can be left out of the conversation.

Susan Scott calls the method behind a fierce conversation “Mineral Rights”. It became known as Mineral Rights after a workshop participant made the observation, “If you’re drilling for water, it’s better to drill a one hundred-foot well than one hundred one foot wells.” This observation sums up the primary criteria for deciding which questions to ask in a fierce conversation. If the question will help you drill deeper, ask it; if not, don’t ask it. Interrogating reality and Mineral Rights are not mutually exclusive, you cycle back and forth between the two, some topics you will drill down on, and others not.

Interrogating reality is designed to clarify while Mineral Rights is designed to take the conversation to a deeper level. The questions asked during a Mineral Rights conversation help interrogate reality in such a way that we are mobilized to take potent action on tough challenges.

In my coaching session with Bob, we created a list of questions for him to ask his manager. We specifically chose questions that would increase their chances of a higher level of understanding. Bob wanted to improve the likelihood that the manager would take more responsibility for his actions and decide to engage the team in a positive way. Here is a sampling of the questions we came up with:

* What would you like to be doing more of?
* What is your measure of success?
* What is most frustrating to you about your current role?
* What might you be doing that is getting in the way of your success?
* What is your understanding of what the organization expects of you?
* Do you feel you have the tools and resources to do your job?
* What questions do you have for me?
* How can I best support you?

Creating this list of questions shifted Bob’s perspective and opened up the possibility that there was more going on than he understood. This shift created more fertile ground upon which to have a fierce conversation. Since that initial conversation, Bob and his manager have continued their pattern of frequent and fierce dialogue. The result is that the manager is taking ownership of his role, is creating less tension within the senior team, and is more fully contributing to the success of the organization.

In our next issue, we will discuss specific actions you can take in a fierce conversation and how you can positively influence the outcome.