I acquired Fierce Conversations about five years ago at the Fortune 100 financial services company I used to work for. The author, Susan Scott, was brought in to address an audience convocated by the W.L.P. (Women’s Leadership Project, and no I couldn’t resist including the acronym.) Cheezy? I assumed, yes. But I went anyway because well, I am a woman and I lead. And they had free coffee.
Susan is a tall stunning woman with red hair and fluid body language. She was wearing a white suit. The second she mentioned she was from the Pacific Northwest, I thought to myself: “Oh here we go… another one of those zany new age types here to give a corporate rah rah speech.”
Though I wasn’t ready to receive her message back then, there was no denying Susan’s energy and authenticity. So I took the free copy of Fierce Conversations that they handed out to us, figuring I might read it some day. It sat on my bookshelf collecting dust for years until about a month ago, when my first real adult relationship ended with me being unexpectedly dumped.
It’s Not What Your Think, It’s What You Say
Even without knowing my exact personal circumstances, there are several reasons why a book like this would benefit me. I make my living as a speechwriter. I figure out how to deliver complex and often unpleasant news to large numbers of people of varying intelligence and socio-economic status.
Communicating indirectly with people you don’t know or truly understand is always a challenge. Robert Evans said “There are three sides to every story ─ your side, my side, and the truth and nobody’s lying.” I believe that. To do my job well, I try to consider every angle from which my words may be perceived – by employees, Board members, stockholders, Wall Street, journalists, other companies and those oh-so-pesky regulators. What makes one group happy makes another group angry. Such is life.
Over time, I’ve become good at sterilizing messages … stripping them of all controversy so as not to confuse, offend or reveal anything too telling. It’s a mechanical function. I don’t labor under the illusion that I’m paid for anything approaching art. I’m paid to construct ideas and wordsmith them into palatable messages that will move people and get desired outcomes.
For the most part, it works. With crowds, that is. But as I recently learned, not so good with boyfriends. You can’t talk to your friends, family, and intimate partners like you’re giving a monologue. With them, you have to have a conversation — a back and forth. Without a healthy conversation, you’ll never tell them what’s in your heart.
You’ll hold stuff back. Important stuff. And you’ll even resent them for not knowing the things you haven’t told them! And you’ll never get to hear what they wanted to say to you, but were afraid to say. And they’ll resent you for not being more open. And you’ll either give up, grow apart or stay together lovelessly, hoping it will get better someday. But unless you figure out how to breach the communication chasm, it won’t.
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Converse
It’s some heavy shit. That’s why so many of us try to skirt the issue, pretend there’s nothing important to talk about. “Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here folks, move along.” Eventually, though, whatever we avoid always catches up to us.
Sometimes, fear creeps in before we can even recognize that we’re being motivated by it. Sadly, some of us never take responsibility for acting on our fears. We keep making the same mistakes over and over, and wondering why nothing ever changes. In my case, I deal with fear by putting on a veneer of strength. It’s so polished at this point, it tricks most people. People I don’t want to trick. That sucks, but I’m working on it.
Such is the Sisyphean struggle that is life. Part of my “keep at it” effort this time around was to finally read this book. The most important takeaway for me is the idea that “the conversation is the relationship.” The issues you’re avoiding are the ones you need to get out into the open if the relationship is to continue. The conversation isn’t an unavoidable part of being in a relationship — it is the relationship.
Now, I am glad Susan identified her sweetspot as corporate America because if she hadn’t, I would never have picked up this book. That being said, at times the corporate jargon and workbookiness gets to be a bit thick. I had no trouble skipping over those parts myself, but if you’re the type to gag upon hearing the words “action plan,” proceed with caution. None of these concepts are all that original, but the way this book sews together the ideas, personal vignettes and practical “how to” pep talks was, to me, quite useful.
Here are a few resonant thoughts/excerpts. I only include a few because I want you to read this book learn from it if you, like me, have a hard time telling people what’s on your mind. Read it, and be fierce!
• When you squeeze an orange, what comes out of it? Orange juice. Why? Because that’s what’s inside it. To pretend what’s going on in our personal lives can be boxed, taped shut and left in the garage while we’re at work is hogwash. Who we are is who we are, all over the place.• 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.
• Our beliefs about what we can say as well as how and to whom we can say it are often in the way. If we change our beliefs, productive conversations can easily occur.
• While most people think the problem lies in others, what if you’re the problem? What if you’re so unengaged or unengaging that nobody hears you, nobody really listens to you, nobody really responds to you? Perhaps you’re too polite. Or too self-conscious. Or too self-absorbed. Unconsciously, we end our conversations as soon as we initiate them, too afraid about what we might say or hear.
• Withholding the message is as dangerous to the relationship as delivering the message with a hidden agenda. For each of us, the challenge is to reconcile being real and doing no harm.
• Early in any significant relationship, pay attention to what someone does. Relationships go on far longer than makes sense because we don’t want to believe what we see, hear, feel, and sense in our gut. We don’t want it to be true. When someone shows you who he is, believe him. Pay attention. We show one another who we are every minute of every day.
• See your conversation through to completion. No fair starting a pebble rolling and then running when the landslide begins. No fair behaving in ways guaranteed to evoke anger or fear or sadness in any sensate human being and then exiting the conversation declaring, “I can’t talk to you. You’re too angry.” That’s cheating.