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Learn how to have conversations that get results

Susan's Note for the End of Year

Fierce Ideas (orange lightbulb)

Fierce. At first, the name evokes the straightening of spines and deep breaths taken as we walk towards danger. Perhaps it sounds like the yowl of a bobcat, smells like fear, inspires anxiety. And then a piece within our internal kaleidoscope shifts, and we see that a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves, into our conversations, and make them real. So when someone asks if I’m suggesting that all of our conversations should be fierce, the answer is YES! Why be real on Mondays and false on Tuesdays? Why share thoughts or concerns with family and withhold them at work?

But it isn’t easy, being real.

I love this passage from Martin Marten, by Brian Doyle.

It turns out that having a conversation with someone you like and respect is harder as you go deeper, isn’t that so? Conversations are easy on the surface, where there’s just chafing and chatter and burble and comment and opinion and observation and mere witticism or power play, but the more you talk about real things, the harder it gets, for any number of reasons. For one thing, we are not such good listeners as we think we are, and for another, everyone in the end is more than a little afraid of saying bluntly and clearly what they really think and feel – partly because we are nervous about how it will be received and partly because once you say something true and deep and real, it’s been said; it’s out of your heart and out of your mouth and loose in the world, and you cannot take it back and lock it up secret again, which is, to be honest, terrifying…. The wrong words will make someone huddle back inside himself nor is silence an option for silence will itself be a comment reeking of shock or disapproval. And again replies must be crafted in such a manner that someone continues to think aloud; in so many ways, this is what friends are for – to allow you to speak freely, to speak yourself towards some clarity of heart, to think aloud and thrash toward being able to say what it is you feel, for the chasm between what you feel and what you can articulate is vast and wide. And this is not even to mention how very often what we say has nothing whatsoever to do with what we truly feel.”

Of course, our intention going into our conversations is key. How we enter our conversations is how we emerge from them. When we enter a conversation anxious or combative or determined not to say much or intending to make someone wrong, the conversation will be over before it’s begun and the relationship will deteriorate. When we enter a conversation curious, attentive, engaged, awake, willing to be influenced, it could be one of the best conversations we’ve ever had, even if the person with whom we’re talking is not someone we have particularly liked or respected in the past. We end the conversation with a deeper understanding and a desire for more conversations like this.

You know you’re having a fierce conversation when . . .

    • you are speaking in your real voice
    • you are speaking to the heart of the matter 
    • you are really asking and really listening
    • you are generating heat
    • you are enriching a relationship
    • you overhear yourself saying things you didn’t know you knew


    • you don’t take notes, yet you remember every word


    • you take yourself and your companion personally, seriously


    • you leave the conversation satisfied, awake, fully alive, and eager for more
    • you are different when the conversation was over

The key is to show up—fully. You may be among people who don’t support you. You may be among people who, loving or unloving, are simply not equipped to support the ambition of engaging in fierce conversations. This is not an unusual experience. The courage to show up is both simple and daunting. Once you show up, people can see you. They can judge and criticize and gossip. Some safety and comfort are lost when an ambition or strongly felt emotion is expressed. Perhaps, if you have become impatient with the false identity you have created for yourself, life is inviting you into much larger worlds than you have imagined.

What’s at the heart of fierce conversations is connection, at a deep level, with those who are important to your success and happiness, and with those you have judged, perhaps wrongly, and also with those who need our help. On Christmas Eve, I always watch Alistair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge in the first and, in my view, best version of A Christmas Carol. When his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, dragging a ponderous chain, pays Scrooge a terrifying visit, warning Scrooge that his life is misdirected, a trembling Scrooge insists that Marley was a good man of business. At this the ghost wails –

“Business! Mankind was my business, their common welfare was my business.”

In the U.S. our common welfare was mislaid during the political primaries of this past year, when candidates from both parties left voters confused, frustrated, disgusted, frightened, and angry. And globally, an “us vs. them” mentality has created a wider divide than ever before. It seems to me that Pablo Casals had it right. “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border.”

This video gives me hope.

We should be with one another like this. Forget about persuading others to your view. Saying something louder doesn’t make it true. What is called for now is quiet integrity.

Sometimes, all we need to say, as Inspector Gamache suggests in Louise Penny’s novels:

I don’t know.
I need help.
I was wrong.
I’m sorry.

My hope is that you will ratchet up your level of “fierceness” in 2017 because if you want things to change, as I do, then it is you who must change them. Don’t wait for someone else to begin or for others to make it “safe.” You go first. Sit beside someone you care for and even more importantly, sit beside someone you don’t care for and begin.

With fierce affection,

Susan Scott

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