I found Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations (Viking/The Penguin Group, 2002) incredibly useful for encouraging me to have those conversations I keep putting off and for improving the conversations I do have-- personal or professional. I wish I’d had this book when I was managing a team of young staff.
Scott says that fierce conversations help us "interrogate reality, provoke learning, become mobilized to tackle tough challenges and enrich our relationships." In a fierce conversation, you, as instigator of the conversation, ask questions and listen to the responses. I find this demands of me a qualitatively different level of engagement, that I truly hear my discussion partner, leading to greater understanding, an increased sense of partnership, and a shift from focusing on the problem to focusing on solutions.
So how do you do it? Whether with a romantic or business partner, a client or an employee, you can start the discussion with "What do you feel most deserves our attention?" Then proceed to listen, not interrupt, not react, not defend, not solve. Just listen. And only, Scott insists, ask questions. Like these:
- Describe the issue for me. What’s going on relative to... ?
- What's the most important decision you’re facing? What is keeping you from making it?
- What is the ideal outcome? When this issue is resolved, what difference will that make?
- If nothing changes, what are the implications?
- What's the most potent step you can take to being to resolve this issue?
- What topic are you hoping I won't bring up?
When I practice this approach with clients, I have been amazed at the energy shift from the beginning of the conversation (where the client's energy was very low) to a much more hopeful and up-beat tone; the client left the conversation empowered to act on things that before had seemed so STUCK.
And I benefit, too. I truly believe that listening is not only an incredible gift we can give to others, but it gives right back as I really hear the person across from me (or on the other end of the phone) experience a greater empathy and relatedness. I also feel empowered to support the person in taking on their challenge.
If you try this, please let me know how it goes.