Fierce Conversations; Transforming the Workplace through Courageous Dialog

Susan Scott




A character in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” is asked, “1-low did you go bankrupt?” He responds, “Gradually, then suddenly.” In real life, this is how things happen for CEOs.


  • How do you lose your biggest customer?
  • How did you lose your most valued employee?
  • How did you lose your cash flow?
  • How did you lose your clarity of vision for yourself and the company?
  • How did you lose your marriage?
  • How did you lose your joy in life?
  • How did you lose your health?


For all of these questions, the answer is, “Gradually, then suddenly; one conversation at a time.” For each question you can also ask, “What was I pretending not to know?”


  • How did you build a thriving business?
  • How did you attract your most valued employee?
  • How did you land that great customer that all your competitors would love to have?
  • How did you find yourself in such great health?
  • How did you discover and notice one day that you are completely engaged in a life that gives you tremendous joy?
  • How did you build a marriage that is fulfilling and a sanctuary for you?


The answer is the same: gradually, then suddenly; one conversation at a time. Businesses, careers, marriages and good lives are all built one conversation at a time. This is the #1 principle of fierce conversations. One conversation at a time, you are either building, destroying or flat-lining relationships with the people in your life.


Poet David Whyte observed that the young man newly married often gets very frustrated that his wife insists on talking yet again — about the very thing they talked about the day before or last week. Why, he wonders, do they have to talk about it again? What he doesn’t realize is that the conversation always has something to do with the relationship. Along about age 41, if the man has been paying attention, it occurs to him that the ongoing conversation he’s been having with his wife is not about the relationship. It is the relationship. If the conversation stops, so does the relationship. If the conversation is muted, so is the relationship. When couples continually add to the list of things they can’t talk about, the relationship is greatly impacted.


This is true in business as well as personal relationships. Your conversations with your direct reports may be about all kinds of things, but the quality of the conversation absolutely correlates with the quality of the relationships. Any results you get come out of those relationships, which get built or destroyed one conversation at a time.

The conversations you and your employees have with customers and prospective customers either move things forward in a positive way, flat-line them or take them down, one conversation at a time. Those conversations with your customers are your relationships with your customers. They are how your customers experience the relationship with you. For that reason, it behooves you to pay fierce attention to your conversations with the important people in your life — business or otherwise.





To many people, “fierce” has negative connotations, such as menacing, cruel, barbarous and threatening. However, fierce can also mean robust, intense, eager, powerful, strong, passionate, unbridled, uncurbed and untamed. The simplest definition for a fierce conversation is Thne in which you and I come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real .“ A fierce conversation is more than real.


In TEC, there’s a saying that “no one has to change but everyone has to have the conversation.” When the conversation is real, however, the change often occurs before the conversation has ended. If the conversation isn’t real, there’s no inunediate danger of anything useful happening. As a CEO, your job is to accomplish the goals of the organization. There are many systems, processes, procedures, rules and regulations you can put in place to do that. But one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is to make every conversation you have as real as possible.


Unreal conversations are expensive, both for the individual and the organization. Employees want to feel that their conversations with you build their world of meaning. Organizations want to feel that they are having real conversations with their customers, employees and the unknown future emerging around them. Unreal conversations are very costly. Talk is not cheap.


As the leader, it’s not enough to have a lot of answers. You also have to capture people’s hearts. You do that by showing up authentically, by making every conversation you have real and memorable.


With whom should you have fierce conversations?

  • Yourself
  • Colleagues
  • Customers
  • Family
  • The world at large

Every fierce conversation should accomplish four specific goals:

  1. Interrogate reality. Think of your company as a beach ball. As CEO, you live in one stripe (blue), so you see your whole world as blue. Your CFO lives on a red stripe. She sees the world as red. Your COO lives on a green stripe, so the world looks green to him. If you ask, “What color is our company?” each of you will have a different answer. More important, each of you will be right. Everyone in your company owns a piece of the truth but nobody, not even you, owns the entire truth. It isn’t possible because nobody can be everywhere at the same time. So part of the goal with fierce conversations is to interrogate reality by getting everyone’s “truth” out on the table.


During management meetings, tell your team, “Here’s what the company looks like to me and here’s why I see it that way. The last thing I need is for you to all sit there and give me the ‘digital nod.’ Tell me what you really think, especially if you disagree.” Get as much valid data as you can, particularly from the people who see things differently than you. Make it clear that part of your purpose of getting together as a team is to interrogate reality.


Mastering the courage to interrogate reality is the central function of a leader. Reality has a habit of changing. Plus, multiple realities often exist at the same time. In today’s market, things change overnight. If you don’t constantly test your plan against reality, it will quickly be out of date. When testing reality, the most important question to ask is, “What are we pretending not to know?” The truth can set you free, but many times it makes you angry first. This can be a hard question to ask. But you have to develop the courage and willingness to ask the question. Even the best leaders are very good at pretending not to know a lot of things. Try to become less good at it.


  1. Provoke learning. A fierce conversation does not involve showing up and “holding court” on the other person. Good leaders do more listening than talking. Learning is provoked when people sit side by side and jointly take a look at reality. Learning is provoked when you adopt a beginner’s, not an expert’s, mindset. In the expert’s mind, there are very few possibilities. In the beginner’s mind, the possibilities are endless. This is tough because as CEO, you get to the top based on your experience, knowledge and ability to solve problems and make quick decisions. In fierce conversations, the goal is to expand the conversation rather than narrow it down. Questions work a lot better than quick answers.


  1. Mobilize people to tackle tough challenges. Most CEOs would love to improve the level of accountability in their organizations. But accountability is different from responsibility. You can assign responsibility; you can’t assign accountability. Accountability is a personal, private, non-negotiable choice about how people approach their lives. You can’t hold people to it; they can only choose it for themselves. Accountability is a very powerful stance. In its simplest form, it takes a position that says, “1 attract to me that which occurs.” It is a very powerful, potent way of living life. Once you take this position, there is no place to hide.


The best way to encourage accountability in your company is to model the behavior, to show up that way authentically day in and day out. Contrast the way management at Singapore Airlines and Firestone Tires handled their separate crises. Singapore Airlines took thIl responsibility when one of their planes crashed, killing nearly 100 people. Firestone, whose tires have been linked to hundreds of deaths, continues to deny any responsibility. This sends a very powerful message about accountability to employees, customers and the community at large.


Doctors have discovered that we have the ability to strengthen or weaken our immune systems. Rather than having to do with what we eat, drink or smoke, it has a lot more to do with the degree of integrity with which we live our lives. When there is little alignment between what we believe and what we do and say, we are out of alignment and our body knows it. When this continues, it weakens the immune system. If you are sick a lot or tired all the time, do a personal “integrity scan.” Where are you out of sync with your inner beliefs and values? What do you need to change to get back into alignment?


Your company also has an immune system. It, too, is based on your beliefs and values. Unfortunately, in most companies, the values are written by the CEO, sometimes with input from others. Your values may mean a lot to you and your management team, but don’t assume your employees have the same emotional reaction to them. And just because you have the words doesn’t mean they equal reality. Usually, this kind of “integrity outage” comes from the CEO. Once you veer even slightly off course from what you say is important to the company, you have just given tacit permission for everyone else to begin to veer too. As a result, your corporate immune system weakens and you become vulnerable when opportunities for the organization to get sick come along. And they will come along, even to the best companies in the world. When the immune system is strong, the company can withstand many such situations. When it is weak, it only takes one bump to throw you badly off course.


  1. Enrich relationships. Throughout fierce conversations, whether one-on-one or with a roomful of people, there is a strong feeling of alertness. You feel alive, energized and in tune with every word and nuance of the conversation. You hear what everyone says and you feel heard as well. In fierce conversations, you ask real questions and you honestly care about the person’s answer. In doing so, the relationship is enriched.


There is a certain amount of polite banter and social talk in every conversation. It is just ritual; it doesn’t do very much. Make it a goal to do less social chatting and more engaging in fierce conversation. Ask real questions and then listen as if you really care. However, never try to fake a fierce conversation. You can’t just go through the motions. Don’t attempt a fierce conversation unless you are prepared to really hear and respond authentically to the person you are talking with. Choose your moments, choose your people and choose your words.


In a fierce conversation, silence does most of the heavy lifting. All the rich stuff happens in the silence. It is incredibly powerful. If silence makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself, “Where in life did I become uncomfortable with the territory of silence?”


There are people who take the heart out of you and there are people who put it back. Fierce conversations — even when you are confronting behavior that needs to change — involve care and compassion so that you don’t take the heart out of the other person.


The first rule of fierce conversations is to show up authentically.


A crucible is “a strong resilient vessel in which profound change can take place.” It is strong enough and resilient enough that you can put anything in it and it will hold up. As a leader, you need to be a crucible in your company and in your personal relationships.


One-to-ones with your direct reports offer a great opportunity for fierce conversation. Try these questions during your next one-to-one:


  • Of all the things we could spend the next hour on, what is the most important thing we should be talking about?
  • What area, that if you made an improvement, would give you and others the greatest return on time, energy and investment?
  • What are you trying to make happen in the next three months?
  • What is the most important decision you are facing? What is keeping you from making it?
  • What topic are you hoping I won’t bring up?
  • What has become clear to you since we last met?


One of the greatest gifts you can give another person is the purity of your attention. Most people tend to be very self-absorbed. We tend to operate as if we are the center of the universe. When we’re in a conversation that is supposedly about the other person, we don’t let it be about that other person. One of the difficulties of fierce conversations is learning to let the conversation truly be about the other person.


Fierce conversations are one of the most potent ways to accomplish personal and organizational goals. Constantly ask yourself, “How far out from behind myself have I come into this conversation? How real am I making this conversation?”



The following process offers a model for engaging in fierce conversations. The overriding rule for this model is that until you get to step seven, make no declarative statements; only ask questions.


  1. Identify the issue. A great question to ask is, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about today?”
  2. Clarify the issue. After the person identifies the subject, ask questions until you fully understand what they are talking about. Say things like, “Tell me about this. Describe the issue. What is going on? How long has it been going on?” Don’t let the person go into too much detail. Ask for the Reader’s Digest version, not the whole unabridged story.
  3. Determine the current impact. Determine how the situation is currently impacting the person. Ask, “How is this impacting you? Your company? Your customers? What results is this situation currently producing? How bad are things. How long has this been going on?”


This helps you understand what the situation feels like to the other person. It also might get them to reflect on the situation in a new and different way. It asks them to stop, take a deep breath and look around. The goal is not to pass judgment but just pay attention.


Good questions to ask in this step include, “What else is happening? Tell me more. What are you feeling about this impact?” Try to get the person to a feeling level, to get in touch with their emotions around the issue.


  1. Determine future implications. Ask, “What will happen if the situation doesn’t change? What are the implications of taking no action? What’s at stake for you to lose or gain relative to this issue and the likely outcomes? What’s at stake for others to lose or gain? When you consider these possible outcomes, what do you feel?”


This step helps you understand how important solving the issue is to the person. This step also serves a wonderful motivator. This is where the person chooses (or refuses to accept) accountability, which you can’t assign to them.


  1. Examine personal contributions to the issue. Before moving into solutions, identify the person’s contribution to the situation. Ask, “What are you pretending not to know that helped to create the situation? How have you behaved in ways that assured this outcome? If the person says, “I don’t know,” respond with, What would it be if you did know?”


  1. Describe the ideal outcome. Imagine the problem is resolved completely and brilliantly. What difference will it make? Before the person commits to taking action on a solution, they need to get clear about what they will gain if they do. Burnout doesn’t happen from solving problems; it results from solving the same problem over and over again. This is the step where the person decides what it would be worth to stop solving the same problem all the time.


  1. Commit to action. Ask the person, “Given everything we have talked about, what is the most potent next step you could take to begin to resolve the problem? When will you take it? What might get in your way? How will you get past that? When should I follow up with you?”




Confront means “to be with someone, in front of something.” It doesn’t mean to go head to head against each other. It means to get on the same side of the table and investigate the issue together. Confrontation is simply a search for the truth. The first step is to own your piece of the truth and then open up to other truths.


To prepare for a confrontational conversation with someone:


  • Get clear on what you want, why you want it and who you want it from.
  • Clarify what has happened, how you felt about it and what is at stake.
  • Consider how an objective third party might view the situation.
  • Examine your contribution to the problem, what you are bringing to the table.
  • Examine your feelings about the confrontation. How long has it been building up and how long have you been postponing it?”
  • Write your opening statement, hone it and read it aloud many times. Hear the words coming out of your mouth. Keep working at it until you get it exactly right. Give specific examples, but not so many that you bog the person down in needless detail.


During the confrontation:


  • Make your opening statement and define reality the way you see it. State the issue in the first person in abbreviated form: “This is what I saw happen, this is how I felt about it, this is what is at stake for me and this is what I want to resolve in this conversation.”
  • Ask the other person to give their version of reality. Let them know you will be asking a lot of probing questions. Make sure they know that you fully understand and acknowledge their position and interests.
  • Identify what each of you learned during the conversation. Ask questions like, “Where are we now? What is needed for resolution? What was left unsaid that needs saying? Have we moved? What is our new understanding? How can we move forward from here, given this new understanding?”
  • Make a new agreement and determine a method to hold each other accountable for it.


The key to successful confrontation is asking questions rather than trying to build your case. Once you make your opening statement, ask only questions. Do not make declarative statements until you get to the solution stage. Don’t build your case, no matter what the other person says. That only puts them on the defensive and sends the message that your mind is closed rather than open.


Fierce Conversations Trandforming The Workplace Through Courageous Dialog – Susan Scott