Fierce Conversations ... or Constructive Ones?

In recent years, there has been widespread interest in books recommending “fierce” or “difficult” conversations. These provocatively named best-sellers offer many excellent communication tips.  However, I worry that some of the books' most enthusiastic adherents can often seem more eager for the “fierce” (i.e., “confrontational”) part of the concept than the “conversation” (i.e., mutual, respectful exchange of ideas) part, as a brief anecdote involving two former colleagues will illustrate.  When the true meanings of “fierce”/"difficult" (as defined in the books) are mis-understood and mis-applied, the result is often that "fierce" and “constructive” become quite different things. 

A Tale of Two Colleagues

“Colleague A” is fiercely bright, passionate about a wide range of subjects, and eager to engage in stimulating debate to help focus and fine-tune his ideas and theories.  He feels morally compelled to question approaches to problems until rigorous, high-quality answers and results are achieved – all to the good. Not surprisingly, he is a strong proponent of “fierce” conversations.  Also not surprisingly, this can overwhelm those who don’t share exactly his same sensibilities (i.e., almost everyone else).  He is known to open one-on-one meetings with the declaration, “We need to have a fierce conversation,” immediately putting the other party on the defensive.

When he oversaw a creative department for a short while, team members respected some of the individual results he helped them achieve – but rued the fact that his “fierce” approach included department meetings that felt like daily “public interrogations.”  On the whole, whatever technical advances the department made under his leadership were, unfortunately, more than balanced out by heavy blows inflicted on individual and group morale and professional self-esteem.

“Colleague B” is equally bright, and shares the same thirst for excellence and passion for candid conversations as Colleague A.  “It’s always about the work,” she fond of saying.  The key difference is, she pursues these conversations while always remaining conscious of the emotional reaction of listeners and the state of her working relationship with them.  Even while speaking directly, she communicates a caring for the individual and a concern for maintaining the relationship.  The result is excellent work equal to that of Colleague A – but without the collateral damage unchecked “fierceness” (in the traditional definition) is want to bring.  This has two important effects:

  1. The people she interacts with feel respected rather than over-powered
  2. The impact of the work is likely to be much longer lasting, in both the people and organizations involved.

(I suspect that the above is much more aligned with the intent of the “fierce”/”difficult” authors’ intentions as opposed to Colleague A’s interpretation).

A Different Approach: Constructive Conversations

There is no doubt that having candid, direct dialogue with peers and direct reports is an important part of being an effective co-worker and manager. At the same time, a necessary “pre-requisite” to candor is establishing a credible, trust-based relationship with those you are speaking with, day by day by day. Conversation partners need to see you as someone who:

  • has their best interests at heart (i.e., is “on their side”)
  • has helpful perspectives to share (i.e., has relevant expertise/knowledge)
  • shares your perspectives in a respectful way (i.e., can disagree without being disagreeable)
  • is looking to support and encourage, not criticize and penalize

Interacting in this way – in conversations small and large, formal and informal — day in and day out, builds credibility, which serves as the platform for “constructive conversations.”  By doing so, conditions will have been set for conversations that can address important issues without being sabotaged by concerns about motives, hidden agendas, harmful intentions, etc.

By establishing this base, candid conversations become a healthy, constructive mix of collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and support.  They might not generate the adrenaline rush that “fierceness” brings to some … but I’ll take candid and constructive over difficult and divisive every time!

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Comment by Geoff Blair on February 13, 2012 at 10:40

Hiding behind 'fierce' and going for the jugular doesn't show a lot of integrity. That, too, is not being fierce, it is just trying to win. If being right comes at someone's expense then it is not a conversation that attempts to include the other person.

The tough questions to colleagues will be received properly when there is a culture of co-operation and support - a workplace that really listens to each other. Regularly. 'We are an organisation that values relationships and we as leaders model this'. A one off 'fierce' conversation doesn't fit in with the model put forward by the best sellers.

We need to have the difficult conversations with the folks who say they are being 'fierce' and are being mean spirited.

The person who is being asked the genuinely 'fierce' questions needs to be resilient and not make it mean that they are a bad person.

Relationships are complicated things. Lots of skills are required to give and to receive.

Comment by Michael Brisciana on February 13, 2012 at 12:38

Geoff,

Thanks so much for your comments.  Excellent points ... very well said.

Michael

Comment by Tony Griffiths on February 20, 2012 at 14:41
Whilst I agree with you in principle regarding the important steps involved in relating to individuals, you have me a bit off side by generalising about Fierce Conversations. All of the principles you talk about as appropriate are present in the doctrine of Fierce Conversations. I feel you have found a convenient platform for your narrative that frankly does a disservice to a well constructed model for interactions in the workplace.
The name is evocative and perhaps leads those who are unfamiliar to assume that the principles are destructive. Anyone (even colleague A) who has read more than the front cover would understand that what “Fierce” is advocating is much more about listening than talking and when you are talking you are doing so to enrich the relationship.
That some people are poor at communication can be because they are poor at the 4 main tenants of Fierce Conversations: Interrogate Reality, Provoke Learning, Tackle Tough Challenges and Enrich Relationships. Can you do it wrong- of course, but that doesn’t mean the principles are wrong, just misunderstood.
I don’t think we are on different paths. Perhaps it is just semantics around the word “fierce”.
Comment by Michael Brisciana on February 21, 2012 at 12:04

Tony,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.  I agree -- my intent isn't to call into question the principles expressed in the books, but rather the way that the principles are misunderstood or mis-applied by people who tend to use them (in my experience) as excuses to be hurtful rather than genuinely, caringly candid.  I've re-written the opening paragraph (borrowing a few of your words!).  I hope that this better explains my views -- again, which I think are generally similar to your own.  Please let me know if this helps.  Thanks again for writing.

Michael

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