There are two conversations from the beginning of my career that I’ll always remember. The first was a quick lesson on communication etiquette between myself and a new boss. He told me I had some verbal tics that would not serve me well in the workplace. The most annoying in his mind was that I laughed nervously after I spoke. He said many women do that, but in doing so we can lose our credibility. (Don’t worry, I didn’t work for him for very long.)
The second conversation was feedback a coworker passed on through this same boss. He, my boss, said my coworker didn’t like how I formatted PowerPoint deck presentations. I had been working with this colleague for months, and he never said anything to me directly.
These moments stayed with me in part because they belonged on a Buzzfeed list about “crazy stuff that actually happens in the workplace,” but more so because they were crucial examples of how not to have fierce conversations.
One conversation at a time
I wish I had known about “fierce conversations” in those early career days. Susan Scott, best-selling author and leadership development architect coined the term. Scott helps CEOs and other executive types engage in vibrant dialogue with each other and their employees. She says, "We gain or lose emotional capital one conversation at a time." I couldn’t agree more. Employees and customers follow leaders they trust and deem honest. The same can be said for relationships with family and friends.
My early workplace experiences are proof of what Scott preaches. The moment my coworker went through another person to complain about me and my work, he lost emotional capital, and, quite frankly, my respect. If we had been able to tackle our issue head-on with a fierce conversation, we likely would have been able to move on.
According to Scott there are four objectives to having a fierce conversation:
1. Interrogate reality
2. Provoke learning
3. Tackle and resolve tough challenges, or
4. Enrich relationships
Conversations are the cornerstone of relationships in work and life. Success and failure in these areas depend on how the relevant discussions are handled. Do the parties involved run away from challenges? Or do they charge in, head on, with an honest desire to get things done? No matter if they emerge the hero or the fallen?
Great communication for great people
“The next frontier for exponential growth—for organizations and individuals—lies in human connectivity,” says Scott. “If you want to be a great leader, you have to have the capacity to connect deeply with employees and customers. If you can’t do that, don’t aspire to be a great leader.”
Honest human connectivity driven by purpose is essential for people who aim to be . . . great people. Getting your hands dirty and understanding how to navigate the messy, the complicated, and plain old crappy situations in work and life make you a stronger person.
Getting your hands dirty and understanding how to navigate the messy, the complicated, and plain old crappy situations in work and life make you a stronger person.
I also believe in learning by example. And the four individuals below have each challenged me to communicate better, listen harder, and engage those around me in dialogue—in a fierce conversation—that can make a difference.
Fierce conversation 1: How Trevor Noah interrogates reality
I love comedy. Love it. I even tried to do stand-up for a brief period, before realizing I didn’t have the drive to show up night after night to empty bars and try to impress an empty room.
Good comedians know that to capture an audience and build a loyal following their work should reflect social truths. Many comedians do this by interrogating reality. They make us laugh and also ask us to look critically at ourselves and the world around us.
When Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show, he could easily have morphed it into something snarky and divisive. Instead, Noah opted to slowly turn the show into a space for dissecting what's happening in politics, media, and pop culture. His background, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, gave him the tools to look at American life and society with a fresh perspective. Noah is not afraid of inviting unpopular guests on his show. He knows that the people we want to talk to the least, are often those that we’ll have the most important conversations with.
When asked in an interview on Deadline about how he handles “controversial” guests Noah responded, “If anything, I’m trying to have a dialogue. I’m trying to challenge people’s ideas, and have people who will challenge mine, and come out of that with a slightly better understanding of an issue, or a person, or an idea.”
Fierce conversation 2: Bill Gates on friendship and learning with Warren Buffett
One of my recent discoveries is Microsoft founder Bill Gates' blog, Gates Notes, where Gates talks about personal causes, people he meets, and gives book recommendations. (Among his most recent reviews is, incidentally, Trevor Noah's book Born a Crime.)
After prowling through the blog archives, I came across Gates' reflection on his 25-year friendship with investment wizard Warren Buffet. The post exemplifies how great friendships and relationships push both parties to learn more, be better. Or as Gates' says, "Warren has helped us do two things that are impossible to overdo in one lifetime: learn more and laugh more."
Gates describes his initial disinterest in meeting "the investor who doesn't use email." He didn't think they'd have much in common or that the mismatched pair would even have anything to talk about. But, then: “He started asking me some questions about the software business and why a small company like Microsoft could expect to compete with IBM and what were the skill sets and the pricing. These were amazingly good questions that nobody had ever asked. We were suddenly lost in conversation and hours and hours slipped by.”
Real conversations are not about showing up the other person with your brilliance. Thoughtful dialogue provokes and peels back the layers of things worth discussing; learning and being generous with knowledge, and helpfully engaging others is what makes a conversation spark. "He [Buffett] was funny, but what impressed me most was how clearly he thought about the world. It was a deep friendship from our very first conversation."
Take it from businessman and former NCAA referee Ron Foxcroft: if you can learn to properly manage conflict, everyone wins. Listen as Ron shares useful tips on resolving all types of conflict: whether on the court, in the boardroom, or in your living room.
Fierce conversation 3: Anne-Marie Slaughter tackles the elephant in the room
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic called, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Readers erupted. How could Slaughter say women can't have it all?! Women have been fighting for years to get "we can do it all" ingrained in their heads, and the heads of their peers, their friends, their bosses—basically anyone who will listen.
During her SXSW talk, Scott said it’s the missing conversations that are the most costly. The ones we put off, or when we’re pretending not to know something. Slaughter took a missing conversation and addressed it head-on. “The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
Susan Scott said it’s the missing conversations that are the most costly. The ones we put off, or when we’re pretending not to know something.
To be clear, Slaughter believes in women as leaders, as pioneers, as people who can do anything they damn well please, but only after we (society) address the half-truths that set women up for failure. Some of these include the notion that it’s possible to “have it all” if:
You are committed enough.
Marry the right person.
Sequence your life “right.”
Of course, these things help, but they are only one part of the equation. Slaughter says,". . . what we assume has an enormous impact on our perceptions and responses. Fortunately, changing our assumptions is up to us." And the first step to changing anything is to start talking.
Fierce conversation 4: Enriching runners’ lives through valued content
As an avid runner, I read Runner’s World magazine and rapidly consume the magazine’s two podcasts—"Human Race" and "The Runner's World Show." "Human Race" focuses on highlighting a runner in long-form story format and revealing how running has influenced their life. As someone who doesn’t cry easily, a good “running saved my life” story always gets me going.
Runner’s World editor-in-chief David Willey says his goal for creating two podcasts at the same time, while also updating the magazine itself, was because “The running space is really booming with live events," says Willey. "It's an opportunity to be in person with our readers and strengthen the connection we have with them. It's a chance to bring Runner's World to life in a really meaningful way and go through an experience with somebody, which is so powerful.”
Willey has tapped into the emotions of the Runner’s World audience. We train hard, work hard, and love to talk about running to whoever will listen, which is usually only other runners. I’ve seen my boyfriend’s eyes glaze over when I talk about tempo runs. I need people who are as passionate about the causes as I am, in as many places as I am; online, in print and on the road.
For runners who don't live in urban areas, or have access to a running community, Willey has created a community that transcends geography. He makes the dialogue extended beyond the monthly magazine subscription. And, when he leaves his post at Runner’s World in the next few months, he leaves the brand intact with a band of loyal customers ready to follow the company into the next chapter.
What’s left to say?
Fierce conversations are not one-offs. The people discussed above are leaders and have succeeded in no small part because they dare to say, ask, and talk about the things that their communities want, and need, to hear. But even more, these individuals are not afraid to charge ahead into the unknown and be unpopular. They stir up conversation and commentary because they know it’s the only way to provoke change and gain the trust of their employees, friends, and followers.
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.