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Book Summary: Fierce Conversations – Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time

Fierce Conversations (2002) is a practical guide to having authentic, powerful conversations that can change the trajectory of your life. It uses anecdotes, practical techniques, and assignments to illustrate how conversations are the cornerstone of relationships.


This book offers numerous useful principles that will help anyone become a better conversationalist and a more responsive listener. Read carefully because gems of very valuable content are scattered through the entire book, a sentence here, a quotation there, buried in long, interesting digressions about the author’s life, people she’s known and clients she’s worked with over time. A judicious editor could have made a very sharp and effective pocket book out of this material about managing intense, strong discussions with skill. As it is, you’ll have to do some digging, but you’ll have a perfectly good time doing it, particularly if you are a fan of New Age mantras and can handle a little touchy-feely vocabulary. We assure you that the lessons you’ll learn about conversations – including fierce ones – will stand you in good stead.

Book Summary: Fierce Conversations - Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time


  • Treat every conversation as if it’s your most important conversation.
  • Face facts.
  • Ask questions.
  • Deal with today’s problems immediately – today.
  • Obey your gut.
  • Take responsibility for everything you say.
  • Silence is part of a good conversation.
  • Say “and” instead of “but.”
  • Don’t talk at people – talk with them.
  • A conversation is a relationship.

Introduction: Unlock your brave, authentic self to have transformative, fierce conversations.

Raise your hand if you want to be the friend who points out that their roommate’s fiancé seems like trouble.

Or the employee who talks to their coworker about how missed deadlines are hurting the team.

Or the manager who needs to rein in a team leader whose methods are a little too autocratic for the group.

Awkward conversations – very few of us enjoy them. After all, being present, embracing candor, and finding authenticity isn’t easy.

In this summary to Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations, you’ll discover exercises and techniques to help you become an expert communicator – and see that powerful, effective conversations can lead to transformation in both your personal and professional life.

Fierce conversations can alter lives

How did I get here?

It’s a question you may ask yourself as you survey your once successful business – now a shaky enterprise with disgruntled employees and an unhappy client base. Or as you consider your unsatisfactory personal life with a partner you no longer connect with.

If life is a board game, the dice you throw to advance in the game are conversations. But a conversation isn’t just words – it’s a relationship with yourself and others. So the type of conversations you have matter. They’re the difference between getting stuck at go and changing the whole trajectory of your life.

Assuming you’re interested in that second option, your conversations need to be fierce.

Fierce conversations are powerful, passionate, untamed, and – most importantly – authentic. They’re the conversations the real you has – the version of yourself that might typically hide behind manners or fear.

In a company where fierce conversations occur, employees feel included and invested in the company’s overall success, leaders are effective mentors, mediocrity isn’t tolerated, and everyone feels comfortable and empowered to speak their truth. And at home, families and friendships can thrive in the safety of knowing that everyone’s best interests are at heart – even if the truth is sometimes hard to hear.

In the next sections, we’ll lay out the seven principles of Fierce Conversations that can help you rewrite your relationships.

Find and honor everyone’s truth

In the fall of 2001, a Bering Sea crab fishery faced an odd situation: they’d received more than double their normal amount of orders from Japan.

Why this spike in demand? Well, it was right after the 9/11 attacks, and many Japanese travelers had canceled their plans to visit the United States. They stayed home instead – and ate more crab!

What does this story illustrate? That in life and business, weird stuff happens – often in ways we can’t control. It’s in the details of how we respond to these vagaries of fate that we either succeed or fail.

The key is to understand that there is a multiplicity of truths. And the fiercest conversations will honor as many as possible. That’s what the crab fishery did to deal with the sudden increased demand, considering that the fishermen, accountant, salesperson, and CEO all had a different context and truth.

Here are the steps for including as many truths as possible when dealing with a business issue – with or without the crab.

First, identify the issue in one or two concise sentences, and categorize it. Is it a challenge? An opportunity? A recurring problem? Use bullet points to summarize the background and steps taken to date. With your current options, clearly state what kind of additional help you’ll need.

Second, set up a meeting and invite not just those who are directly involved, but also people who could be impacted downstream. When in doubt, include rather than exclude. Send context ahead of time, and make it clear you expect attendees to prepare.

During the meeting, discourage people from taking notes – instead, insist on eye contact. Ask for feedback, and push for all sides of the issue. If someone doesn’t contribute, call on them by name. If someone disagrees, respond with authentic and genuine curiosity rather than defensiveness.

Finally, ask everyone to write down their solutions and read them out loud. Summarize what you heard, give verbal thanks for participants’ contributions, and keep them posted about results. Honoring all their truths will lead to better, more nuanced outcomes for everybody.

Always choose authenticity

You’re in a meeting where your manager, Neel, wants input on why a recent campaign failed. Although you know that Neel’s decision to greenlight an inexperienced contractor was the reason, you keep your mouth shut. You don’t want to lose your job!

But imagine if you did speak up. Sure, Neel may give you the stink eye – or worse. But because you identified the problem at hand, Neel may also improve his vetting processes.

Imagine that your authentic self – the one who wants to have this difficult conversation – is standing behind the version that’s afraid to do so. To have a fierce conversation, you must step out from behind the inhibited you.

Say we flip the scenario, and now you’re the manager. The same thing still applies. Let the authentic you step out from behind the version of yourself that is afraid to hear criticism. Take the blame. Accept the mistakes. Encourage input – it’s key to remain open and available, especially to the employee who may have spoken against you. Invite and cultivate radical transparency.

Here are some assignments that can help you find that brave, authentic self.

First, in a few words or phrases, write down how you feel about yourself, your life, and your work.

Second, imagine if your life were a movie. What would the plot be? The conflict? The perfect ending? This fierce conversation is with yourself, but it affects all your relationships: ask where you’re going and why, who will go with you, and how you’ll get there.

Third, determine the people you need to have fierce conversations with. Your spouse? Your manager? Your siblings? Write down what you’d like to talk about.

Finally, identify one big issue you want to solve. Clarify it. Determine its impact and implications. Recognize how you’ve contributed to this situation, and what resolution would look like. Commit to action by creating and signing a contract with yourself.

These intentional clarifications and conversations are the foundation in your journey to finding your authentic self.

The importance of being present

Sometimes, being present means paying closer attention to what isn’t said.

Here’s an example. During one of her Fierce Conversations workshops, Susan Scott asked a participant – let’s call him James – to talk about a problem. She then divided the audience into three groups. She asked a third of the participants to listen to what James said, a third to note his emotion, and the final third to pay attention to his intent.

Standing in front of the room, James spoke of his struggles with weight gain and his intention to do better through exercise and eating better. Afterward, Scott asked the three listening groups to discuss what they’d heard.

Group one repeated back the words that James had spoken.

Group two noted that James appeared frustrated and embarrassed.

But the third group’s verdict was perhaps the harshest. They declared that James wasn’t ready to do anything about his problem.

James disagreed with them, but it didn’t go unnoticed that he grabbed extra brownies during the next break.

Fierce conversations go beyond the words that are spoken. Listening and observing play a crucial role in understanding intentions. One effective way to do this is by maintaining eye contact. That way, you won’t get distracted by other things in the room and can give the other person your full attention.

Being fully present means you can delve deeper into conversations. You can even prepare for a fierce conversation by asking questions like, “Is there a topic you hope I won’t bring up?” or “If you had more time to devote to something, what would it be?”

During the actual conversation, you may have to bite your tongue – but avoid giving advice or making declarative statements. This is your chance to simply listen and be fully present, which is just as important as talking.

Master the art of radical candor

As a manager, it can be tempting to put off the awkward conversations about a junior employee’s less-than-stellar performance or a coworker’s slow progress on a project. But delivering that feedback is beneficial to everyone.

If you cringe at the thought of confrontation, don’t worry. Scott has come up with a tried-and-true method of making the process of delivering feedback a lot easier.

To start, you’ll need to prepare a short opening statement that can be delivered in under a minute. In that statement, you’ll cover seven distinct parts.

First, name the issue. For instance, you could say, “Sam, I want to talk about how you lead meetings and the effect that has on the team.” Use words like “I want” or “I’d like,” which are less anxiety-inducing than “I need.”

Second, give an example: “I heard from some of your direct reports that you don’t send out agendas, and that meetings typically last 30-45 minutes past their scheduled end time.”

Third, explain your emotions: “I’m worried about the impact this will have on morale.”

Fourth, describe what’s at stake. You could say, “Several employees have approached me about leaving the team because they feel frustrated about wasting time.”

Next, show your involvement: “I should have stepped up earlier to give you this feedback before it became a topic of conversation among others. I’m sorry about that.”

Sixth, make it clear that you want to find a solution by saying something like, “I want to resolve this issue of inefficient meetings.”

Finally, issue an invitation for a response: “Could you please share your feelings about this issue with me?”

Once you’ve delivered your opening statement, move on to the next step: interaction. If the person you’re speaking to deflects, gently bring them back to the issue at hand. To wrap things up, work toward a resolution. Come to a clear agreement – not just about what has been understood on both sides, but about how things will proceed.

The left-hand column

Imagine a sheet of paper with two columns. The right column contains the things that are actually being said. The left column contains what you think about what’s being said.

For example, let’s say you’re having a conversation with Jin, a friend who’s considering applying for a promotion. Jin is worried that her qualifications aren’t as strong as other candidates’.

Your right column might say the encouraging words you speak to Jin as her friend: “I think you have a good shot.”

Then your left column might say, “But I don’t think you’ll beat out Ernesto, who had that amazing presentation last week.” Instead of not saying your left-column thoughts, which could help Jin, or blurting them out, which could hurt her feelings, try and find neutral ground: “I think you should apply. I can work with you on practicing your presentation skills.”

The left-hand column is also a place to note observations. Scott offers the example of David, who was having difficulties dealing with his son, Ron. Ron had got in with a bad crowd, fought with his parents to the point of threatening to hurt them, and left home. During the conversation, Scott noted that David seemed blank, almost emotionless, as though he was speaking from within a fogbank. When she brought up this observation, David admitted that he had not allowed himself to feel any emotion since his son left – and that yes, he saw himself as almost invisible inside a dense cloud. This insight helped Scott lead David to the next level of healing.

We’re often afraid of offending someone. It can be hard to say out loud what we’re thinking inside because we’re conditioned to be “nice.” But speaking the left column’s truth is the fierce thing to do.

Temper your wake, and practice silence

You know how when you eat something delicious, it leaves a lovely flavor in your mouth that lasts long after the last bite has been swallowed? The same occurs when you eat something bitter or unpleasant – the taste can linger hours after the meal has been consumed.

It kind of works the same way with interactions. The way you interact with someone and make them feel may be intangible, but it’s still very real. Scott calls this a “wake” – the feeling you leave behind when you’re no longer there. It’s important to be cognizant of your wake, and to take measures to ensure that the taste you leave is sweet and not sour.

So let’s look at what not to do. Calling people names, playing the blame game, extrapolating small things to all-encompassing ones (“You forgot my dry-cleaning therefore you don’t care about me”), and saying things like “You don’t get it” or “Here you go again” – those are all things you want to avoid. Keep in mind that words aren’t the only way to hurt someone. Facial expressions and tone of voice can have the same effect.

If a situation is getting awkward or emotionally intense, it can be tempting to run away. But the more intense the scenario, the more important it is to stay grounded and authentic. Think of yourself as a crucible. Maybe someone says something to make you feel angry. Instead of melting, boiling, or cracking under pressure, become stronger. Become an iron pot where change can occur – where you can transform your anger into something more productive.

We’ve talked a lot about how to speak and what to say. Now, let’s briefly talk about the importance of silence – the final principle of fierce conversations. Silence can be used to introduce a significant pause, which gives you space to understand what the conversation is truly about. Being silent can also help you see what you feel. But beware of slipping into the territory of passive aggression, or a silence that congeals to the point of no return, which can wall off the conversation. Silence should be used as a tool, not a weapon.

Remember, conversations aren’t just words being exchanged between two people – they’re a lifelong relationship you build with yourself and others. Cultivating and conducting fierce conversations will lead to a more authentic existence, which will result in a healthier, happier you.


Principles to Speak by

The seven principles of conversation are:

  1. Be courageous and check the facts.
  2. Choose to be authentic.
  3. Live in this moment, now, listening to and speaking to this person, now.
  4. Face your problems today, solve them and move on.
  5. Go with your gut instinct. Obey your intuition.
  6. Conversations are relationships. Take responsibility. Nothing you say is trivial.
  7. Shut up and let silence do its necessary work.

“Life is curly. Don’t try to straighten it out.”

Maybe times are tough for you. One conversation at a time brought you to wherever you happen to be. Spend some effort remembering how it happened. You can’t change unless you accept responsibility. Maybe times are great for you. You still got to this point one conversation at a time. Are things great at home and at work? Think about it. Workplace conversations should be just as fierce as home conversations.

“No one, not even the CEO, owns the entire truth, because no one can be in all places at all times.”

Fierce means real. Fierceness is not about barbarity, but about intensity, strength, power and passion. Getting fierce means getting real. Tell the truth and let the truth be told. Every conversation builds up or tears down relationships. Unreal conversations abound and they are costly. Listen to yourself. Do you change the subject, lie, dodge the issue or hide behind vague language? Take a break and make a conscious effort to be straightforward and honest, for example by saying, “What I just said isn’t quite right. Let me see if I can get closer to what I really want to say.”

Face Facts

Stuff happens. Things change. Companies don’t have annual strategic meetings anymore. Now teams get together every quarter and begin by checking what has changed since their last meeting. Big customers go bust. Star employees leave for greener pastures. New technology makes you an anachronism. Competition kicks you out of the ring. Now, determine what the facts are behind the events? You may think you know. But you probably only know your facts. Other people know their facts. Everyone comes at reality from a distinct perspective and sees a distinct set of facts – a different reality.

“The person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge the leader.”

Plenty of people hide their reality behind “the corporate nod.” You see this nod in meetings, where instead of saying what they really think and feel, people nod.

To face facts, you need to ask these important questions:

  • What do I usually talk about with people? Why?
  • Do I say things I don’t really mean, just to be polite?
  • What issues do my conversations avoid at work and at home?
  • What questions would I ask if I had a sure-fire guarantee of honest answers?
  • What has it cost me at work and in my relationships to ignore pressing issues?

“One of my favorite quotes is from Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’.”

Truth isn’t simple. Most people confuse what they think with what is true. To get at the truth, you need to get everyone’s perspective. This takes time, but not doing it wastes time.

This process, which is called “interrogating reality,” has three steps:

  1. Propose.
  2. Find out if people understand the proposal.
  3. Find out whether they agree with the proposal.

“Even with conversations that begin with a clear focus, it’s easy to get sidetracked into rabbit trails.”

In this discovery process, don’t place blame. Leadership isn’t about blaming. It’s about finding the facts. In terms of conversational technique, don’t say “but,” which implies that someone wins and someone loses. “But” excludes. Say “and” instead; “and” includes.

Practice this: Over the next 24 hours (yes, that includes at home), remind yourself to “describe reality accurately,” don’t place blame and substitute every “but” with “and.”

“You get what you tolerate.”

Look for the ground truth, the facts on the ground as opposed to the official truth. Ground truth isn’t usually written down; it’s unofficial, informal, passed around the office. Identify the ground truth, and compare it to the official truth, in every aspect of your life – work and relationships. What values do you propound and what values are true on the ground?

“I have not yet witnessed a spontaneous recovery from incompetence.”

Try this exercise:

  • Write your values. Be precise, thoughtful and specific.
  • Write about times when you have abused those values in the workplace.
  • Write about times when you have abused those values in relationships.
  • Write about times when you abused those values in other dimensions of your life.
  • For each instance where you’ve failed to act with integrity ask what should you do to fix it and what you will do to fix it?

“Our very identities must become fluid.”

Corporations can perform much the same exercise. Crafting a vision statement is a useful exercise, provided it’s a real conversation. Too many vision statements are merely mush. Part of the corporate self-exam is an honest assessment of your employees. You have to know whether your people have the skills, talents and values you need. If you tolerate inferiority, you’ll get inferiority. Also honestly assess yourself, as an employee.

“The issues in my life are rarely about you. They are almost always about me.”

Ask yourself:

  • Where am I headed? Why?
  • Who am I taking with me?
  • What route am I taking?
  • Am I being all I can be and doing all I can do?
  • Am I challenged to the limit of my ability?
  • Is this work valuable and fulfilling?

No Place to Hide

Most conversations are unreal. People don’t say what they know is true; they don’t reveal their true selves. They duck uncomfortable issues. A conversation is no place to hide. A conversation ought to be about and grounded on truth. Otherwise it’s a waste of breath.

“If you or someone else feels that a conversation is needed, it is.”

Live in the present moment. You can’t live anywhere else – but you can let your mind drift so that you don’t live fully here:

  • Give each and every conversation your full attention.
  • Look at the person you’re talking to.
  • Listen when you’re on the phone – don’t check your e-mail during a conversation.
  • Don’t just say “Great” when somebody asks how it’s going. Engage yourself. Have courage. Have one-on-one conversations.

“There are things our gut knows long before our intellect catches on.”

Remember these “don’ts”:

  • Don’t do all the talking.
  • Don’t take charge. Draw the other person out.
  • Don’t forget to ask about the other person’s feelings.
  • Don’t be ambiguous or vague.
  • Don’t miss the appointment unless you die.
  • Don’t allow anything to interrupt.
  • Don’t drop conversations because of time. Cover what you can, and schedule a follow-up.
  • Don’t just take it for granted that you’re getting these conversations right.

“The fundamental outcome of most communication is misunderstanding.”

During the next seven days, exercise being fully there during conversations – one at a time:

  • Give every conversation your full attention.
  • See every conversation as “brand-new,” don’t drag any previous conversations into it.
  • Don’t worry about a certain outcome.

Use a decision tree to categorize decisions and to liberate the people who report to you:

  • Leaves: Make the decision; no one needs to know about it.
  • Branches: Make the decision; report at regular intervals.
  • Trunk: Decide, but report before you act.
  • Root: Decide only after lots of input from lots of other people.

Do It Now

Never put off a challenge. Do the hard things today. First, define the problem. Once you identify the problem, the solution will come. Don’t be deterred by uncomfortable facts. Don’t be afraid. Face facts squarely. Involve the whole team in this effort.

To start a discussion, carefully think about your opening statement, which should include:

  • The problem or issue.
  • A “specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change.”
  • How you feel about it.
  • The consequences or implications.
  • What you can do or will do.
  • Your wish to change the situation.
  • An invitation to respond.

Come up with a “fierce conversation” that you need to have. Set yourself a deadline for it. Get ready for the conversation by putting the elements of the opening statement down on paper. Practice saying it. Then go for it.

Don’t Just Trust Your Gut – Obey It

Intuition isn’t guesswork. It’s a way of knowing. Don’t neglect it. Obey your instincts. Don’t force yourself to be logical, factual, objective and data-driven. Listen for the inner voice. Be quiet and listen. Then be patient and listen to others. Don’t present your intuitions, ideas or conclusions as if they were fact. Ask. A conversation that tiptoes around difficult issues is a failure. If you’re confused, good. Trying to clear up your confusion may help others do the same. Remember, there is no such thing as a trivial remark in a fierce conversation. You’re responsible for the impact of what you say, whether it is harmful or helpful.

In your next conversation, pay attention to your thoughts and emotions and share one. It may alter the conversation’s direction. “Be courageous in your conversation today.”

“Digging Deep”

Someone once said, “If you’re drilling for water, it’s better to drill a 100-foot well than 100 one-foot wells.” Fierce conversations need to get down to the main issue, the bedrock, fundamental, underlying reality. These are “mineral rights” conversations. They’re particularly demanding, and particularly necessary but can prevent you from getting lost in a maze of rabbit trails – tangents and distractions that lead away from where you want to be.

To have a productive mineral rights conversation, you should:

  • Tell people in advance that you want to talk about what they think is most important.
  • Take their word for it that their issue is important. Don’t tell them it’s not.
  • Be humble and listen.
  • Be sensitive to feelings and ask about them.
  • Avoid the accountability shuffle. That is, don’t pass the buck.

Drilling to bedrock isn’t easy. Mineral rights conversations, like all really fierce conversations, require you to risk facing some unpleasant facts about yourself. But when you have the courage to do so, you get the truth – a very powerful thing to possess.


When you have a fierce conversation, the authentic, powerful version of yourself says the brave things that matter. A lifetime of fierce conversations can lead to better relationships with your colleagues, your loved ones, and yourself.

About the author

Susan Scott is an educator and owner of corporate-training firm that focuses on achieving results through dialogue.

Susan Scott maintains an international consulting practice through her firm, Fierce Conversations Inc., which provides Fierce Conversations, Fierce Leadership, and Fierce Coaching programs to CEOs and company leaders. For fourteen years, she ran think tanks and seminars for business leaders through TEC International, an organization dedicated to increasing the effectiveness and enhancing the lives of CEOS around the world. Scott has extensive experience assisting companies with mission, vision, values, leadership development, cultural transformation, strategic planning, and executive coaching.


Communication Skills, Sex, Relationships, Career Success, Business, Nonfiction, Leadership, Self Help, Personal Development, Psychology, Management,

Table of Contents

Fierce Conversations Foreword by Ken Blanchard
The Seven Principles of Fierce Conversations
Introduction: The Idea of Fierce
Principle 1: Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality
Principle 2: Come Out from Behind Yourself into the Conversation and Make It Real
Principle 3: Be Here, Prepared to Be Nowhere Else
Principle 4: Tackle Your Toughest Challenge Today
Principle 5: Obey Your Instincts
Principle 6: Take Responsibility for Your Emotional Wake
Principle 7: Let Silence Do the Heavy Lifting
Conclusion: Embracing the Principles
A User’s Guide


Fully revised and updated—the national bestselling communication skills guide that will help you achieve personal and professional success one conversation at a time.

The master teacher of positive change through powerful communication, Susan Scott wants you to succeed. To do that, she explains, you must transform everyday conversations at work and at home with effective ways to get your message across—and get what you want. In this guide, which includes a workbook and The Seven Principles of Fierce Conversations, Scott teaches you how to:

  • Overcome barriers to meaningful communication
  • Expand and enrich relationships with colleagues, friends, and family
  • Increase clarity and improve understanding
  • Handle strong emotions—on both sides of the table
  • Connect with colleagues, customers and family at a deep level

Includes a Foreword by Ken Blanchard, the bestselling co-author of The One Minute Manager


“Plenty of helpful tools and assignments.” —Publishers Weekly

“A reminder that ‘the way out is through,’…she provides great techniques for navigating the passage.”—David Allen, New York Times bestselling author of Getting Things Done

“A life-affirming primer for moving us toward the conversations we need to have most.”—Doug Stone, New York Times bestselling coauthor of Difficult Conversations

“Those whose conversations with co-workers or family members aren’t producing the results they want will find plenty of helpful tools and assignments in this succinct guide.”—Publishers Weekly

“Scott’s workbook exercises will allow readers to have effective, life-changing fierce conversations of their own.”—Booklist

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Chapter One
Master the Courage to Interrogate Reality

Life is curly. Don’t try to straighten it out.

No plan survives its collision with reality. The problem is, reality has an irritating habit of shifting at work and at home, seriously complicating our favorite fantasies. And reality generally wins, whether it’s the reality of the marketplace, the reality of a spouse’s changing needs, or the reality of our own physical or emotional well-being.

Things change. The world changes. You and I change. Business colleagues, life partners, friends, customers. We are all changing all the time. As Lillian Hellman wrote, “People change and forget to tell one another.” Not only do we neglect to share this with others, we are skilled at masking it to ourselves. It’s no wonder relationships disintegrate.

The traditional practice of annual strategic planning sessions is a thing of the past. It no longer works for a company’s executive team to spend two days on retreat, determine their goals, roll out an action plan, and call it a year. The team members must reconvene quarterly to address the question “What has changed since last we met?” As a company president recently admitted, “I’d like to get a firm grasp on reality, but somebody keeps moving it.”

The best we can hope for, to quote business consultant Robert Bridges, is “the masterful administration of the unforeseen.” Stuff happens. Internally. Externally. Some you can affect. Some you can’t.

Life Is Curly

From working closely with corporate leaders, I know very well how quickly reality can change. The customer responsible for 50 percent of your business files for bankruptcy. Your most valuable employee is recruited away from you. Your competition comes out with a great, new whiz-bang product that you are not prepared to match or beat. New technology renders your product or service obsolete. The economy goes upside down. You go upside down, lost in the complexity of your organization’s goals and challenges.

Perhaps you suddenly landed that huge customer you’ve been pursuing but never believed you’d get, whose expectations you are unequipped to meet. In the last quarter of 2001, the owner of a crab fishery in the Bering Sea scrambled to fulfill twice the normal orders for crabmeat from his customers in Japan. Why the demand? Following the September 11 terrorist attack, many Japanese canceled their travel plans and stayed home. And while they were home, they ate a lot of crab! Few of us would have foreseen a link between terrorism and the consumption of crab.

It would seem companies are stressed either because their sales are too low or because their sales are too high. As individuals, we are stressed either because we don’t have enough of the things we want or because we have all of the things we want. We are either shedding or acquiring; either way, happiness eludes us.

Or perhaps you realize that you’re operating at a new level of effectiveness in a particular area of your life. Life feels like your favorite class at school, with a rush of learning every day. You’ve received a promotion or you’ve fallen in love with a wonderful person. Whatever it is, something spectacular has happened and you don’t want to blow it. It feels like acing a final exam and winning the lottery on the same day-exhilarating and a touch frightening. You’ve been given a valuable gift-a thrilling new reality-and you know it! And in some corner of your heart, a loving voice suggests, “Listen up, bucko. You’d better make some serious changes or you’re gonna blow this deal!”

Let’s face it. The world will not be managed. Life is curly. Don’t try to straighten it out.

Beach-Ball Reality

Whether you are running an organization or participating in a committed relationship, you will find yourself continually thwarted in your best efforts to accomplish the goals of the “team” unless reality is regularly and thoroughly examined. You know this. Describing reality, however, can get complicated. Let me show you what I mean.

Think of your company as a beach ball. Picture the beach ball as having a red stripe, a green stripe, a yellow stripe, and a blue stripe. Let’s imagine that you are the president of the company. That’s you standing on the blue stripe. The blue stripe is where you live, every day, day after day. If someone asks you what color your company is, you look down around your feet and say, “My company is blue.”

How do you know? You’re surrounded by blue. You open a drawer and it’s full of blue. You pick up the phone and listen to blue. You walk down the hall and smell blue. Every day you eat, drink, and breathe blue. From where you stand, the company is as blue as it gets. Cobalt blue, to be precise.

So here you are in a meeting, laying out your strategy to launch an exciting new project. And, of course, you’re explaining that this strategy is brilliant because it takes into consideration the blueness of the company.

Your CFO listens intently. Her brow is furrowed. She lives on the red stripe. All day she’s up to her armpits in red. Cash flow is tight. She takes a deep breath and ventures, “I’m excited about this project, but when I hear you describe our company as blue, I wonder if you’ve studied the latest cash flow projection. I’m dealing with a lot of red these days. Can we talk about this?”

While many leaders do not welcome opposing views, you are highly evolved, so you respond, “Okay, put that red on the table and let’s take a look at it.” And the debate is on. Blue, red, blue, red, blue, red.

Meanwhile, your director of manufacturing is starting to squirm. He lives on the green stripe. He is thinking, “Man, oh man. The timing on this project couldn’t be worse, but every time I share concerns I am viewed as a naysayer. Besides, it’s nearly lunchtime and no one will thank me for complicating this conversation even further.”

Your VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, has a strongly held, differing opinion, but his experience has taught him that differences of opinion lead to raised voices and strong emotions, after which someone dies. In his experience, for some people win/win translates to I win. I win again. And the last time he stuck his toe over the line with a controversial idea, the most vocal member of the team shot it off. So this key executive, who is privy to useful information, pulls off an amazing feat. He shrinks his subatomic particles and disappears.

This is possible, you know. Think about all the times a meeting has ended and you found yourself trying to remember if your VP of engineering was present. He was; he just made himself invisible. Some people are extraordinarily talented at this. They may be brilliant, but disappointingly (and irritatingly), they neither fish nor cut bait, they are neither hot nor cold. They appear to be, at best, politely indifferent.

The Corporate Nod

The ability to hide out at meetings was so prevalent at one company that the behavior eventually got a name. Picture a leader holding forth from one end of the boardroom table. She is espousing the cleverness of the current strategy. Like all good leaders, at some point she offers an opportunity for others to respond. Something like, “So what do you think?”

It gets quiet around the table. Unnaturally quiet. Like the quiet before a tornado, when birds fall silent and not a leaf stirs and a bilious sky warns of an approaching storm. Around the table, eyes fall. Each individual practices the art of personal stealth technology, attempting to drop beneath the leader’s radar screen. At one point the leader calls on some poor bloke who is less skilled at vanishing than his team members.

“Jim, what do you think of the plan?”

Jim gets that look on his face like a cat occupied in the litter box-sort of far away as if to indicate that he is not really here and neither are you. The leader waits Jim out. Jim has to do something.

Jim nods. His head moves up and down as he gazes fixedly at a spot on the boardroom table.

The leader smiles.

“And what about you, Elaine?” the leader persists.

Elaine steps into the litter box. Head down. Eyes averted. She nods.

And so forth around the table, as the leader scans the room.

The Corporate Nod.

Satisfied, the leader concludes, “Good. We launch on Monday.”

In the funnies, characters’ thought-bubbles float overhead, capturing the unfiltered notions bobbing about in their heads. We love the Dilbert comic strip because the characters actually say what they’re thinking and it’s often what we have thought ourselves. If we could read the thought-bubbles floating over the heads of people sitting around the boardroom table, the very people charged with implementing the strategy, we might see: “There’s no way we can do that! This is crazy!” Or “This sucker is going down. Time to dust off my résumé.” Or “Wonder if my family would notice if I bought a ticket to Barbados and disappeared.”

We don’t know what people are thinking unless they tell us. And even then, there’s no guarantee they’re telling us what they really think. Yet, if asked, most people avow that they want to hear the truth, even if it is unpalatable.

A friend who is a high-level executive, intimidating to many, recently promoted a courageous employee who walked into his office with a large bucket of sand and poured it on the rug. “What the hell are you doing?” demanded my friend.

The employee replied, “I just figured I’d make it easier for you to bury your head in the sand on the topic I keep bringing up and you keep avoiding.”

You can be assured this employee would not have taken such a bold and risky step if he were not convinced that the company was about to embark on a road to ruin. After a sleepless night, he had determined that he owed it to himself, his colleagues, his customers, and his leader to either make himself heard or leave the organization. He told his boss, “Everyone’s in-basket and out-basket are full, but I’m concerned we’re avoiding the too hard basket.”

The conversation following this outrageous act interrogated reality, provoked learning, tackled a tough challenge, and enriched the relationship. It is no small thing that, as a result, the company made the changes necessary to avoid a potential disaster.

If you’re in a similar situation, I don’t advise you to buy a bucket of sand. However, do recognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.

And if you are the boss who deserves a bucket of sand, you may have been defending yourself with the complaint: “I pump out energy and it’s unilateral. Nothing comes back.” Perhaps you are not allowing it to come back.

Taking Stock

The Corporate Nod shows up in living rooms as well as boardrooms. Companies and marriages derail temporarily or permanently because people don’t say what they are really thinking. No one really asks. No one really answers.

Ask yourself …

* What are my goals when I converse with people? What kinds
of things do I usually discuss? Are there other topics that
would be more interesting?

* How often do I find myself-just to be
polite-saying things I don’t mean?

* How many meetings have I sat in where
I knew the real issues were not being discussed?
And what about the conversations
in my marriage? What issues are
we avoiding?

* If I were guaranteed honest responses to any three questions,
whom would I question and what would I ask?

* What has been the economical, emotional, and intellectual
cost to the company of not identifying and tackling the real issues?
What has been the cost to my marriage? What has been
the cost to me?

* How often do I recall members of my team or staff putting
their real concerns on the table in an attempt to make the conversation
genuine? What about my conversations at home?
How honest are my partner and I being with each other?

* When was the last time I said what I really thought and felt?

* How would I describe the level of collaboration, alignment, and
accountability of my executive team? of my family members?

* What are the leaders in my organization pretending not to
know? What are members of my family pretending not to
know? What am I pretending not to know?

* How certain am I that my team members are deeply committed
to the same vision? How certain am I that my life partner
is deeply committed to the vision I hold for our future?

* When was the last time I confronted someone at work or at
home about his or her behavior and ended the conversation
having enriched the relationship?

* If nothing changes regarding the outcomes of the conversations
within my organization, what are the implications for
my own success and career? for my department? for key customers?
for the organization’s future? What about my marriage?
If nothing changes, what are the implications for us as a
couple? for me?

* What is the conversation I’ve been unable to have with senior
executives, with my colleagues, with my direct reports, with my
customers, with my life partner, and most important, with
myself, with my own aspirations, that if I were able to have,
might make the difference, might change everything?

* If all of my conversations with the most important people in
my life, including my spouse and family members, successfully
interrogated reality, provoked learning, tackled the tough
challenges, and enriched relationships, what difference could
that make to the quality of my life?

Are My Truths in the Way?

It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that each of us simply needs to tell the truth. Will Schutz, who has taught seminars on honesty for decades, suggests that truth is the grand simplifier, that relationships and organizations are simplified, energized, and clarified when they exist in an atmosphere of truth. Yet Schutz acknowledges that truth, itself, is far from simple.

Pause for a moment and think about the truth. After all, what is the truth, and does anybody own it?

What each of us believes to be true simply reflects our views about reality. When reality changes (and when doesn’t it?) and when we ignore competing realities (remember the beach ball?), if we dig in our heels regarding a familiar or favored reality, we may fail. Perhaps what we thought was the truth is no longer the truth in today’s environment.


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