Becoming Skilled: Fierce Conversations

By | January 13, 2017




January 8, 2017

After being named CEO of Microsoft in February, 2014,  Satya Nadella  turned his attention to what he saw as his most important problem: the effectiveness of the executive team.  He approached the problem by inviting the members to begin a conversation about the question, “What is the purpose of the leadership team?”

Nadella’s concerns about purpose arose from his years as a member of the team before being promoted to CEO.  The team had operated in the past “as if we had the formula [for success] figured out,” he  said to Adam Bryant, columnist for the New York Times, on February 21, 2014.  Convinced that the old formula would no longer work, he said,  ”Now it is about discovering a new formula. “The questions that he was struggling with as he thought about a new formula were foundational:

“How do we take the intellectual capital of 130,000 and innovate where none of the category definitions of the past will matter…since any organizational structure you have today is irrelevant because no competition or innovation is going to respect those boundaries…[and] how do you create that self-organizing capability to drive innovation and [also] be focused?”

Nadella was wise enough to know that it would be a huge mistake to appear in the first meeting with his answers to these questions as part of a Power Point presentation. Rather, he made it clear that it was time for a conversation.  His message was: “We are going to talk to each other until we come up with something we can agree on.”

The challenge introduced by the new CEO was central to the future of Microsoft.  In order to do justice to the importance of their task, what was needed was a language that could match the importance of the goal.  An important rule of thumb is “never small-talk a big problem.” Frivolous, meandering, phony, posturing,”hot-air” bloviating exchanges would not do. Though at the time they may not have been able to identify clearly the name of an appropriate language for wicked problems (and theirs were clearly wicked) there is such a language:  What they needed was “Fierce Conversations.”

What Are Fierce Conversations?

Describing some conversations as fierce may confuse. After all, doesn’t fierce suggest menacing, aggressive, threatening, cruel?  Fierce is defined in the dictionary as “marked by extreme intensity of emotions or convictions; inclined to react violently.”  However, if you turn to Roget’s Thesaurus and look for synonyms of fierce you will find a different and more helpful perspective: Fierce can also mean “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager.”

Susan Scott, in Fierce Conversations, writes, “In its simplest form, a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.” What a radical idea:  Coming out from behind ourselves!  No more hiding behind excessive caution or exaggerated politeness.  Real conversations rather than phony ones!

What is a “real” conversation?  It is one in which those who are participating express clearly what they think, prefer, mean, want, support, disagree with and wonder about without making others in the room angry, defensive, hostile, or inclined to retaliate.  Real conversations move us from hiding, distorting, avoiding, smoothing over and dodging, to openness, honesty, clarity and accuracy. ”Before Fierce” says Scott,  there is “beating around the bush, dancing around the subject, skirting the issues. An ‘us vs. them,’ ‘me vs. you’ culture.  [There is] terminal ‘niceness,’ avoiding or working around problems… No one engages.  Nothing changes.”

“After Fierce” (when it is done skillfully) we can expect:

  • Naming and addressing issues truthfully and effectively.
  • Achieving high levels of alignment, collaboration, and partnership in the relationship, family or organization.
  • Effectively confronting attitudinal, performance, or behavioral problems.

Microsoft’s New Purpose

In his interview with the New York Times, Nadella gave no details about the nature of the conversations that led the team to define their purpose in leading Microsoft, but I have no hesitation in concluding that they were not frivolous, phony, or superficial ones.  Rather, I believe that they were serious, intense, and “real.” In a word, Fierce.

Here is what emerged from their conversations: “The framework we came up with is the notion that our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment, and intensity.  What is it we want done? Are we aligned in order to be able to get it? And are we pursuing that with intensity? That’s really the job.”

For Wicked Problems, Real Conversations are Required.

In seeking an agreement about their own purpose, Nadella and the executive team were facing a classical wicked problem:  There were no pre-determined answers, no formulae, no recipes, no consultants with answers to turn to: they had a task that would never be finished.  They had to figure it out from themselves, and the only way to do this was for them to sit together in a room and talk until they arrived at a place where they felt satisfied. What was essential in order to reach their goal was to use language that was robust enough to get them through and over the inevitable obstacles and hurdles.

And once they agreed on clarity, alignment, and intensity, they faced even more difficult and complex wicked problems going forward.  First among them was the challenge for the executive team to not only understand what they meant by clarity, alignment, and intensity, but then to translate this understanding into behavior. After all, naming something is not doing it.  Giving a name to one’s goal is a necessary first step, but if anything is to change, it cannot stop there. In order for clarity, alignment and intensity to take root and flourish, behaviors that are congruent with the terms used to define them are required.  For example, after agreeing that once the alignment was important,  it was crucial that the team members moved beyond talking and actually begin “acting” aligned.

And their challenges did not end with themselves. After the executive team members understood and behaved in ways that led to increased clarity, greater alignment, and helpful intensity, there were even more daunting tasks on the horizon. Getting buy-in from the 130,000 employees of Microsoft for clarity, alignment, and intensity, and then ensuring that these values and behaviors became part of the organizational culture, was a gargantuan and never-ending undertaking.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, understood clearly the importance of real conversations.  In a Harvard Business Review article in 1989, Welch said:

Real communication takes countless hours of eyeball to eyeball, back and forth.   It means listening more than talking.  It’s not pronouncements on a videotape, it’s not announcements in a newspaper.  It is human beings coming to see and accept things through a constant interactive process aimed at consensus.  And it must be absolutely relentless.  

From Flabby to Fierce

When the issues are important, complex and messy – in a word, wicked  -  and addressing them is important, then fierce conversations are needed.  Unfortunately, many of the conversations are flabby rather than fierce.

Flabby conversations are the opposite of fierce ones:  apathy is in charge; no one seems to really care about what is being discussed; wishy-washiness is the norm;  people seem distracted, giving the appearance that they are bored and would like to be elsewhere; “going-through-the motions” reigns;  the many variations of hiding are common; people are delighted and relieved when it is finally over; and reluctant to show up for the next meeting!

When the conversations are fierce, there is electricity in the air. Something interesting, even compelling, is happening, and there is hope that it may lead somewhere that will make a difference.  People lean forward, make eye contact and listen intently.  Difficult issues are put on the table and treated with the respect they deserve.  People are open with their disagreements.  Conflicts, even confrontations, are common and, rather than being destructive, are helpful.  There is an honesty and authenticity in the way people speak and the things that they say.  There is little doubt about where people stand, what they think, and what they want.

  Where to Begin

Getting started with learning and practicing fierce conversations includes three steps:  Listening to oneself, (gaining awareness); beginning to speak “fierce;” and learning the foundation for fierce conversations.

Begin with listening – to oneself.

When the goal is to move from flabby to fierce, the point of departure is always with oneself.  In order for couples, families, and teams to engage in fierce conversations when they are necessary, individuals first need to become aware of the language they use for dealing with problems.  ”Begin by listening to oneself as never before,” suggests Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations:

Begin to overhear yourself avoiding the topic, changing the subject, holding back, telling yourself little lies (and big ones), being imprecise in your language, being uninteresting even to yourself.”

Practice “Fierce.”

“At least once today,” suggests Scott, “when something inside of you says ‘This is an opportunity to be fierce,’ stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.  Say something that is true for you.”

Here are some possibilities:

  • I see it differently.
  • I would prefer to deal with it today rather than next week.
  • That’s an interesting idea but here’s why I don’t think it will work for us.
  • When you cut me off in the middle of a sentence, I am frustrated and offended.
  • Hey, I don’t find it helpful when you avoid the issue or change the subject.
  • If you expect my support I want you to ask me for it rather than just assume that I will back you.
  • You’ve been going on for almost ten minutes and I’m completely lost. I have no idea what you’re talking about.
  • I found your presentation creative and very interesting.  Way to go!

The I-Message is the Foundation

The most useful language for fierce conversations will always include what is called an I-Message.  As the name implies, it requires us to speak for ourselves and share our perceptions and preferences.  It asks us to disclose what is going on “inside:” What we see, hear, think, want, choose, prefer.  For example, rather than asking “When are you going to learn how to get your message across?” we say,” I tried to follow what you were saying but got lost.  Help me out, will you?”

In a future essay I will spell out in more detail the structure and substance of I-messages: What they are, why they are crucial to effective conversations, and how and when to use them.

Real is Rare

Real conversations in which we share what is important are rare.”Everything is usually so masked or perfumed or disguised in the world,” writes Ann Lamont in Traveling Mercies, that people are never able come to know each other.  And yet “…it’s so touching when you get to see something real and human…when people have seen you at your worst, you don’t have to put on the mask as much. And that gives us license  to try on that radical hat of liberation, the hat of self-acceptance.”

While rare, real conversations can also be incredibly meaningful.  After a “Fierce Conversation” workshop led by Susan Scott, a participant reported with tears in his eyes, “I’ve longed for conversations like this all of my life but I didn’t know that they were possible.  I don’t think I can settle for anything less going forward.”

Few of us who are out there “playing the game” will be surprised that things are “masked, perfumed or disguised.”  We are not only aware of it, we often participate.   Given that many situations in our judgmental and evaluative society are win-lose contests where winners move on and losers disappear, it makes good sense to be cautious about what to say and how to say it.  When survival is the number one issue, going into hiding and staying there, sharing only what is absolutely required and even then, keeping it safe and superficial, can be a smart strategy.

It is also hugely unproductive.  When things matter, there are significant costs to “safety first” strategies in conversations.  If important issues are ignored, postponed or denied, they will almost always get worse.  ”Sometimes you have a little problem and you don’t fix it,” says the sheriff in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, “and then all of a sudden it ain’t a little problem any more.  You understand what I’m telling you?”

“Yessir, I do,” answers the young deputy.

Not Easy, Not Quick – But Worth It. 

Are fierce conversations easy or quick? Are they panaceas that will solve our most difficult problems?  No and no. But if we know anything, we know that things of real value are never easy, quick or simple.  When the problems we face are central to the well-being of  important relationships and to success in our careers, then we really have no choice but to face up to them and begin.  Flabby conversations never get us where we want to go.  What can be infinitely more productive is to put on the Fierce Conversation Hat and begin.  ”When you come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real, whatever happens from there will happen,” writes Susan Scott.  ”It could go well or it could be a little bumpy, but at least you will have taken the plunge.  You will have said one real thing today, one thing that was real for you.  And something will have been set in motion.”























Email this to someoneShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUpon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 + = five