Coaching: Fierce conversations

I belong to several coaching associations and through one of them I participated in a telephone conversation with Susan Scott, author of "Fierce Conversations." I felt an immediate affinity for her principles and her encouragement to come out from behind yourself and enter authentic conversation.

Authentic leadership is one of my themes, and I resonated with everything Susan said during the phone interaction, and later with the wisdom she incorporated in her book, which I highly recommend.

My coaching clients know that I believe in speaking your truth, in getting everything on the table so that change can happen. They know that I believe in returning a dilemma to sender, i.e., giving it back to the person who created it and who has the power to resolve it.

Susan Scott’s book offers many tools for getting the gumption to have those necessary, even vital conversations that we so often put off.

Some of you might cringe a bit at her use of the word fierce. If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find fierce defined as robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager and unbridled. Scott suggests, "When you think of a fierce conversation, think passion, integrity, authenticity, collaboration. Think cultural transformation."

As a leader, aren’t those just the kind of conversations you want to be having on a regular basis? Aren’t those the only sorts of conversations that provide a chance of getting across who you really are? Aren’t those the conversations you want rippling through your organization daily? Aren’t those the conversations you want going on with your customers?

If fierce, real conversations become a way of life in your organization, it could be the end of gossip, corporate politics and the need for 360-degree feedback. The agony could be lifted from performance reviews.

Scott’s book will give you a good idea of what she’s talking about.

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality. This principle refers to the shifting nature of reality. Markets change and require changes in our strategies. People change but forget to tell each other. Sometimes we don’t even know it ourselves.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real. Lots of people fear and postpone those "real" conversations, yet it is the "unreal" conversations that are expensive and should be mighty scary.

"When the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation is over," Scott says. You can start immediately by making every conversation as real as possible. What would you say if this were your last chance to talk to a person or a team? What would you say if you put aside your fear of the consequences and wanted to only foster the greater good?

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else. The idea is to speak and listen as if this is the most crucial conversation you will ever have with this person. If you show up with that attitude, it could be the single conversation that transforms your company, your relationship or your life. We all succeed or fail one conversation at a time.

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today. Solving problems doesn’t cause burnout. Trying to solve the same problem over and over causes burnout. Rigorously specify, define and identify the real obstacles in your path and walk boldly into the conversations that can lead to resolution. You will walk away traveling light.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts. Scott says that we aren’t to just trust our instincts, but obey them. My radar screen works great, and I get into trouble when I ignore it. You no doubt have similar stories about situations when you failed to tune in and act on your intuition. That little nudge is the scent of something real coming close, our smartest intelligence sending a message. In coaching, I often have these "inklings," and you can bet I share them with my clients.

Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake. If you are leading people, nothing you do is trivial. You are being watched. Every comment you make may have a huge emotional load for someone in your organization. If you keep the lights on regarding the emotional wake you create, you are more likely to speak with clarity, convection, and compassion.

Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting. Great conversations include breathing space. Insights occur between words. Allow time for courage to develop so everyone in the conversation is speaking truth. Now that’s a fierce conversation.

Whether or not you want to dip into Susan Scott’s book, I hope you will begin engaging in fierce conversations. That doesn’t mean your teeth are bared. Your soul is, and you will begin to feel more alive all day long. Your organization, your family and your community will have a fighting chance to know and be inspired by the real you. There is no other way to live your destiny.

Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay and can be reached at (414) 332-0300, or The firm’s Web site is

July 23, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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