One of my weak spots has always been how to handle difficult conversations. Whilst at Microsoft, there was a great talk titled ‘Fierce Conversations’ that I found to be a real help. It was delivered by Susan Scott and based on her book of the same name. Here’s a short summary of that talk.

3 big ideas:

  • Our lives succeed, or fail, one conversation at a time
  • The conversation is the relationship
  • All conversations are with, and sometimes they involve, other people

When people say ‘don’t take this personally’ what do they really mean? Of course we are going to take it personally, otherwise what’s the point? If you need to have a difficult conversation, (e.g. one that makes you worried enough to start with ‘don’t take this personally’) the first 60 seconds are crucial.

  1. Name the issue (and keep it to one! Shame on you if there’s more than one issue been left too long to fix)
  2. Give one specific example to illustrate the issue
  3. Confess your emotion – shows that you are involved/affected by this issue and hence need to resolve it
  4. Say what you feel is at stake – honestly, no matter how difficult. It gets attention
  5. Confess what part has your DNA on it – what you contributed (or didn’t) to create this issue
  6. Say “I want to resolve this with you/we need to resolve this” – shows you want to move forward together, not point fingers of blame
  7. Invite the person to give their take on the situation – and shut up! Don’t defend or argue, just listen.

Tips on what not to do…

  • Avoid the ‘sugar coated spit ball’ approach where you are supposed to start with something nice before delivering the bad news. People will start putting on the armour whenever you start a conversation with something nice… Nice things should be part of every day conversations, not saved up for when you need to deliver some bad news! Are you paying a sincere compliment, or doing textbook ‘good news – bad news’?
  • Don’t put pillows around the message to avoid hurting feelings (including your own). You can’t avoid emotions so keep them open and the conversation honest
  • And the opposite to the pillows – don’t walk into a room, pull the pin, throw the grenade and exit without pausing to witness the carnage caused. Take responsibility for the emotional wake you leave. (Emotional wake is covered in much more detail in the book, this talk focused on the first 60 seconds)

“Fierce conversations take us to a place where we are moved to act.”


Filed in the library under: Talks

Blog, Event Notes
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