In recent years, there has been widespread interest in books recommending “fierce” or “difficult” conversations. While these best-sellers offer many excellent communication tips, I worry that some of their most enthusiastic adherents can 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 illustrates, “fierce” and “constructive” aren’t necessarily the same thing.
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:
- The people she interacts with feel respected rather than over-powered
- 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 of a “fierce” conversation … but I’ll take candid and constructive over difficult and divisive every time!
- Giving and Receiving Feedback (timesunion.com)
- Rypple’s Nick Stein, on how to deliver better feedback (eblingroup.com)