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September 2005

Tough Talk for Teams: Difficult Dialogues for
Leaders and Teams

People have a love/hate reaction to the idea of holding tough conversations with other people. For example, whenever I say to our daughter: “Carylyn — please come here — I want to have a talk” she immediately reacts defensively. “Did I do something wrong?” or she'll ask “Is this a good talk or a bad talk?” It's most usually just an opportunity I want to take to share an observation about her own or someone else's behavior, followed by a lesson which, ultimately, she seems to appreciate. The talks have never resulted in a punishment for her. But just the idea of a “serious conversation” throws her initially into a bad place. Should we as leaders or team members be any different?

In the last few months we have been introducing the principles and skills of how to conduct “fierce conversations” with several teams that we have been working with for some time. What is a 'fierce conversation'? It's a discussion in which one or more people openly and candidly dialogue about issues that have previously been “off-limits” or remain unresolved. There is usually some emotion (anxiety, hurt, anger, etc.) associated with the issue itself. Perhaps the word 'fierce' is too strong of a word, but the intent of holding such a conversation is not to be cruel, threatening or hurtful.

Why don't we have these fierce conversations? We don't have the courage or we fear bad reprisals and negative consequences. We're afraid to hurt someone else's feelings. We're not sure how to handle it if things get out of of control.

We have always included a section in our “Tough Talk for Teams” program where each team member identifies, and then holds a discussion with another person on the team, or with the whole team itself.

Teams have told us that, as a result of the program, they began to talk about the “elephants in the room” (the untouchable/the unspeakable issues) and have actually started to use the phrase “I think we should have a fierce conversation about this.”

In some cases it was good that an experienced facilitator was in the room, because as some team members jumped on the chance to have a fierce conversation (finally!) about an issue — there was a fair amount of emotion and defensiveness when these issues were suddenly out in the open for all to see.

What fierce conversations do you need to have with your team or a significant other in your life?

Fierce Conversations
by Susan Scott

While there are many books written on how to communicate more effectively, I found that this book captures the richest and yet most basic rules of how to make even the most difficult conversations effective both in business and in our personal lives.

You might assume from the title that this is a book about confrontation and conflict. While the principles can apply in those situations, it is really about encouraging (and accepting) honesty and constructive feedback in your interpersonal interactions.

The book uses real life examples with business executives from various companies who consultant Susan Scott has worked with that the reader can readily identify with. In addition, to summarizing engaging communication approaches to use with others, Scott challenges us to ask ourselves to be honest about the realities in our workplace.

In each chapter there are helpful summaries, practical tools and action items.

Actions for Results:
Tips & Tools for Tough Talk for Teams

As you think about whether or not you need you need to engage in some “tough talk” with your team, keep these principles in mind:

• Avoiding topics
• Changing the subject
• Holding back
• Telling little lies
• Being fuzzy in your language
• Saying things you don't mean
• Hiding behind politics
• Jumping too quickly to conclusions/solutions
• “Solving” the same problems over and over

• Talking about the “unapproachable” issues
• Looking at the costs of not tackling the real issues
• Listening to what you really want to say
• Saying what you really want to say
• Truly trying to understand others' points of view
• Asking the provocative question; making bold proposals
• Describing reality without blame
• Treating every conversation as important with “whole body listening”

“We were all inspired by your presentation on 'The Leader's Legacy.' If you don't mind, I'd like to pass on some of your thoughts to the rest of the organization.”

Bonnie Lieberman
Senior Vice President
& General Manager
John Wiley & Sons, Inc

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the EquiPro Coach

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Are you or your organization facing a particular performance challenge? Leadership issues? Turf wars instead of teamwork? Struggling with a major change? Expanding globally, but not collaborating across borders? Frustrated with lack of business growth?

Lynda McDermott

Lynda is honored to be one of over 570
Certified Speaking Professionals
in the United States

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