Fierce Conversations, Part III

Copyright 2006 Tim Link

Take Charge of Your Emotional Wake

In my years of coaching, I’ve worked with a variety of leaders who were known for delivering results consistently on time and on budget. Along with their reputation for delivery came the reputation of driver, pace setter, or taskmaster. Most were proud of this reputation and believed they were doing “what they were paid to do.” However, in their drive to deliver results, they often left more than a few people battered and bruised along the way. They didn’t realize that over time, feelings of intimidation among the troops would build up to the point of creating barriers to progress. These leaders were unknowingly creating a negative emotional wake.

Often in heated or charged conversations we are so focused on what we want to say and how we feel that we don’t pay attention to the impact our words, tone and body language have on other people. How do people feel when you leave? Are they fired up and motivated or are they depressed and defeated? Do they feel listened to, valued and trusted? Or do they feel mowed over, dispensable and micro-managed?

The feelings you leave people with after a conversation constitute your emotional wake. It determines how people feel about you, what they think of you and what they tell others about you. It also profoundly affects the culture of your team and larger organization.

One of the goals of a fierce conversation is to leave a positive emotional wake where both parties walk away with a deeper understanding and commitment.
If people have to spend their time licking wounds and dressing bruises, the only understanding they’ll have is that you are someone to be avoided and defended against.

For a leader, whether official or unofficial, there is no trivial comment. An off-handed comment you don’t even remember saying can have a devastating impact on someone looking to you for guidance and approval. At the same time, something you said months or years ago may have encouraged and inspired someone who is grateful to you to this day.

A negative emotional wake is not just created by what you say; it can also be created by what you don’t say. Not telling people that you appreciate the work they have done or what they mean to you will leave the impression that you don’t value them and their efforts. When people don’t feel appreciated a culture of indifference and apathy begins to take root. Everybody (including you) needs to feel valued and know that their efforts are appreciated.

Tips for Understanding Your Emotional Wake

There are times in the work place and in our personal lives when we need to bring up controversial or potentially upsetting issues. In order to leave a positive wake and reduce the chance of an inaccurate spin being attached to what you say, learn to deliver the message without the “load.” The “load” is a negative charge. You can deliver a negative load in several ways. If you are engaging in any of the following behaviors, there’s a good chance you are leaving a negative emotional wake:
• Blaming
• Name calling, labeling
• Using sarcasm
• Exaggerating
• Giving unsolicited advice
• Pointing to someone else’s failure to communicate
• Assuming a position of superiority
• Character assassination
• Making blatantly negative facial expressions
• Being unresponsive, refusing to speak

At times it can be tough to gauge our emotional wake especially if we are scared or confused on some level ourselves. The following is a list of clues that are warnings you might be leaving a negative emotional wake:
• You feel like you aren’t connecting with your people. You’re talking and they’re nodding their heads but that doesn’t seem to translate into action.
• You stop receiving confirming or positive feedback from those with whom you are communicating.
• You notice that others are displaying closed body language around you.
• You begin to feel like your people are expending extra energy on gaining your approval or the approval of others.
• You feel like people are not taking their own initiative.

Leadership is not always pretty. There are times when we have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. The tricky part is that different people need different things and receive information in different ways. You can profoundly impact the way your message is received with some planning and forethought. Start by thinking about your audience and how they are most likely to receive the information. What are they worried about? How can you mitigate their concerns? How can you present your message so it doesn’t come across as blaming or an attempt to make them feel guilty?

If you are uncertain about how your message is coming across, test it out on a trusted colleague first. Then after you’ve given your message, ask for feedback. Ask trusted co-workers how it came across and how they thought you were trying to make people feel.

The Paradox of Authenticity

People can tell when you aren’t saying what you really think. When people sense that your words and actions are not congruent with your feelings, they will discount your message. This is why another important aspect of fierce conversations is authenticity. To a large degree authenticity is defined by what others see in you. If authenticity were purely an innate quality, you couldn’t do much to impact it. Fortunately there are things you can do to manage the perception of authenticity.

Most people think of authenticity as being straightforward, “telling it like it is” and being sincere. I wouldn’t exactly say that’s an inaccurate definition; it just doesn’t tell the whole story. People who assume they are being authentic when they express their thoughts and opinions in an uncontrolled manner inevitably wind up leaving a negative emotional wake.

One of the reasons I hear for not considering how a message is delivered from hard-charging executives is, “This is who I am and they just have to accept me the way I am.” I don’t mean to imply that you have to be “nice” all the time but part of becoming a better leader means having good boundaries and knowing when to be tough while still delivering your message effectively.

Authenticity is not the product of pure manipulation. It accurately reflects aspects of the leader’s inner self, so it can’t be an act. But great leaders seem to know which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when. The paradox of authenticity is that you have to be able to adjust and adapt what you say and you have to do it in a way that is congruent with who you are. The challenge is to find a balance between being true to yourself and the exercise of leadership.

Managing the Perception

Establishing your authenticity as a leader is a two-part challenge. The first is to ensure that your words are consistent with your deeds. A great leader constantly strives to “walk the walk.” The second is finding common ground with the people you are trying to influence.

Leaders need to possess self-knowledge, but great leaders have to be able to recognize which aspects of their authentic selves particular groups are looking for and have the willingness and ability to share it with others. By authentically sharing and listening in a way that creates common ground, you can positively impact the emotional wake you leave.


We’ve covered a lot of ground in these articles on fierce conversations: from ground truth to mineral rights, to the power of listening and silence, to managing your emotional wake and authenticity. All of these topics are crucial skills for people who want to be great leaders and create a fulfilling and successful organization. The hard part is knowing how to “get from here to there.”

Most people develop these skills through trial and error over the course of several years. In the current economic environment, many businesses don’t have the luxury of this rather inefficient method; that’s where coaching comes in. Coaching works with the individual, the team and the larger organization to help each person build their own awareness, build their repertoire of communication skills, enable them to better read others, tune into feedback and consciously decide what to do with it. Through the coaching process, skills that would have taken a career to develop can be learned in months.