Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

Posted: February 24, 2023 Filed under:

The 5 minute read...

Susan Scott describes herself as a leadership development architect and her book, Fierce Conversations has become an international best seller but is it a ‘must read’ for school leaders?

Well, yes and no!

The main drawback is that the frequent and lengthy anecdotal stories are just too American – top business orientated in description that really don’t translate well to a British school context.

That’s an unfortunate distraction because there are considerable positives and this short article gives you the key takeaways.

The first thing to understand is that Susan Scott uses the term ‘fierce’ not to mean anger or intimidation but “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager and unbridled.”  Which school leader wouldn’t sign up to those latter qualities when faced with a challenging issue to raise with a difficult colleague or parent?

Within this context Scott then places a premium on the value of listening for all ‘fierce conversations’, to truly understand what others are saying and to reflect on what is said, rather than engaging the mind on what to say next or even to wander off to somewhere else entirely.

Scott helpfully highlights that though the issue or point raised by someone else may at first appear irrelevant to our agenda, the very fact that they have mentioned it suggests that it is of importance to them and therefore is worthy of exploration. Giving time and attention to listen deeply with “soft eyes and ears” enables the other person to communicate effectively to enable meaningful progress in any ‘fierce conversation’ and often this requires listening to what is not said.

Moving from this essential foundation the real value in Scott’s work comes from a distillation of what she describes as ‘the seven principles of fierce conversations’:

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality

The starting point here is to use those critical listening skills to fully understand how the parties involved perceive the situation. For Scott, everyone owns a piece of the truth and “no one, not even the CEO owns the entire truth.”

So, key steps here are: establish the real goals from the conversation; make a proposal; check understanding [yours as well as theirs]; check agreement; avoid blame but also remind yourself about your core values and ask yourself if you are behaving in a way that is consistent with those values?

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself, into the conversation and make it real

Scott could have simply said “be honest with yourself and be honest with others” but the real value in this chapter is the proposed 7 step process

  1. Identify your most pressing issue
  2. Clarify the issue – what is really going on and for how long?
  3. Determine the impact
  4. Determine the future implications
  5. Examine your personal contribution to the issue
  6. Describe the ideal outcome
  7. Commit to action

Add on a step for review/evaluation and actually that is a pretty good framework for a challenging conversation.

Principle 3: Be here – be prepared to be nowhere else

There is considerable literature on the importance of being prepared with all the right information, documents etc and things like getting your body language right. Scott goes further to advocate a kind of mindfulness approach so that your preparation gives you the mindset to be fully focused on the issue in hand and on understanding the perceptions of the other party to the conversation.  So common mistakes to avoid: doing most of the talking; taking the problem away from someone; not enquiring about feelings; allowing interruptions and running out of time.

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today

Or Eat That Frog as Brain Tracey wrote but the other top tip of value in this chapter is to limit you conversation introduction to 60 seconds from naming the issue, specifying an example that needs changing and confirming your desire to resolving the issue to inviting the other to respond.

The longer the intro, the more we talk, the more we waffle and the less engaged the other person becomes.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts

There are two strands here. Firstly, learn to trust your inner thoughts and feelings. If something doesn’t seem right or feels uncomfortable then it is probably because it doesn’t fit well with your core beliefs and values. So, and secondly go beyond your inner voice and express it out loud.

Say it to yourself will make it feel more real and say it to the other person will put it out on the table so something has to be done about it.

Keep asking yourself, “what am I seeing or thinking that I am not saying?” and then “what do I need to do about this?”

Principle 6: take responsibility for your emotional wake   

“For a leader, there is no trivial comment. Something you might not even remember saying may have had a devastating impact on someone looking to you for guidance and approval … something you said years ago may have encouraged and inspired someone who is grateful to you to this day”

“Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative. Our individual wakes are larger than we know”

Says it all really.

Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting

In Kate Murphy’s excellent book [You’re not listening anymore] she quotes research that shows in Japan it is common for a GP to allow a silence of 6 to 8 minutes once the patient has described the symptoms or condition they are experiencing. In this period the GP is processing what was said, listening more to how the patient is presenting and allowing the patient time to add anything further on reflection. In England the same research indicates the respective time is a massive minus 0.5 minutes. Not difficult to work out what is going on there!

Scott concurs with this wisdom and adds that the more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required.

Scott advocates you to use silence to slow down a conversation so that you can discover what the conversation really needs to be about and to allow silence to teach you how to feel.

She leaves us with this question: What beneficial results might occur if I said less, listened more, and provided silence in which to think about what was said and what was not said?

Gary Edwards
February 2023

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