Going beyond ‘Have a good day’

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

Seven tips for having a fierce conversation

Harry S. Dennis III

Many thanks this month to a good friend and TEC colleague, Susan Scott, for the following insights. More detail can be found in her soon-to-be-released book, Fierce Conversations: Transforming Your Work Relationships, and Your Life – One Conversation at a Time.
The notion of "fierce conversations" is really not new. Guys like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates knew all about them a couple thousand years ago.
In modern day genre, however, a fierce conversation is deliberate, focused and ongoing. "Have a good day," for instance, is not a fierce conversation.
The fourfold purpose of a fierce conversation is to: 1) interrogate reality, 2) provoke or stimulate learning, 3) tackle tough challenges interpersonally and 4) enrich human relationships.
What are some examples of fierce conversations in the workplace? Here are the more common ones: hiring and firing interviews, performance reviews, praise for work well done, constructive feedback in training exercises, problem-solving team meetings, incident or accident occurrences, and so on.
When is a fierce conversation not occurring? When someone is lying or making excuses, when a difficult subject is avoided, when the remarks are superficial or insincere, or when the conversation is expedient or hurried due to outside influences such as a lack of time.
Leaders have fierce conversations instinctively. Managers, by and large, are not judged on their ability to have them; hence, unless they are trained and it’s part of the company’s culture, they will more often than not shy away from them.
Scott believes there are seven principles that come to play in the process of making a fierce conversation.
First is mastering the courage to challenge and interrogate reality. A key question to ask is, "What are we pretending not to know?" At our recent 45th TEC anniversary meeting at Marriott West, I facetiously remarked that my vice president and GM ". . .has a way of pointing out that ‘bad news’ is really a figment of my imagination."
Of course, we all know that bad news is exactly that, but it is the reality behind it that really needs to be interrogated, simply because no two people perceive reality identically. In other words, if we only make literal "the words" that are said, we have no way of reaching the underlying meaning that was behind the utterance.

Second, for a conversation to be fierce we must be authentic. We must come out from the "persona" or mask that only lets people see what we want them to see. Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom were masters at unreal conversations.

Third, a fierce conversation is always in the present, not couched in the past or in the future. In a fierce conversation, you must show up to be nowhere else. In simple terms, focus on the here and now, and avoid being distracted by environmental "noise" such as cell phones ringing and other conversations.

Fourth, take on the most difficult challenge that demands a fierce conversation "as in now." The mistake is to armchair psychologist your way into not wanting to deal with the subject of the conversation when it needs to be dealt with. All that you do is store up negative anticipation so that when you finally get around to the conversation, it isn’t real at all.

Fifth, obey your instincts. At some point in a conversation you find yourself being nudged toward a viewpoint. To wait forever for more redundant data is to beg the obvious. How can you do this? Actually in a fierce conversation, it’s fair game to actually have two conversations: one with the other party (parties) and one with yourself. Self-talk is a perfectly healthy tool to gain confidence in your instincts.

Sixth, in a fierce conversation you must take responsibility for your own emotional wake, which is always fluid, and is always either positive, indifferent or negative. This is especially important for CEOs to recognize. If you display an inaccurate emotion in an attempted fierce conversation, you will do nothing but confuse the other party ("do as I say, not as I look or sound").

Seven, a fierce conversation entails a willingness to withstand and encourage fierce silences. Silences give both parties time to catch their breath and mull over what has been said. The next time you are in a conversation, try pausing for just 10 seconds. The first time you attempt this, it will seem like an eternity. ("He doesn’t speak that often, but when he does people listen.")
In this day and age, we have a vernacular of sorts that keeps our conversations from becoming fierce. Say, for instance, "What’s that," to someone who doesn’t speak English, and the person will start looking around to see what you are looking at. Or, "That’s a good point, Bill, but can we park it for now?" And, "I’ll get back to you on that, Mary." Or these favorites: "How’s it going, George?" "I can’t violate a confidence on this, Sam." "That’s a good idea Harry … BUT." "Gotta take this one call, Sally." Finally, "Sorry, Senator, but I must plead the Fifth Amendment."
Can you add to the list? In the meantime, until next month, good practicing your own "fierce" conversations!

Harry S. Dennis is the president of TEC (The Executive Committee) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at 262-821-3340.

Sept. 27, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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