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  • Toby Sinclair

Summary: Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

Updated: May 1


📚 Should You Read This?

👋 Hey - I'm Toby. This summary wasn't written by AI. I'm a real leader, managing teams in large organisations. I read to solve tough problems. I share book summaries to help other leaders tackle scary challenges.

Hell Yeah! This is an incredible book that every leader must read. I had a major realisation whilst reading it. I have many shallow, surface level conversations. It is very rare that I have the Fierce Conversations described by Susan Scott. I have work to do to change that!

Toby's Rating: 10/10

Do You Have Fake or Fierce Conversations?

I’m saddened to admit it. I have lots of fake conversations.

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott has been a wake up call.

Let me explain.

Fake conversations are where you are not fully yourself.

You go through the motions. Asking automatic questions like “How are you?” and responding with “I’m OK, how are you?”. Even though your in a world of pain. You hide your true emotions. You stay quiet rather than objecting. You watch the clock, waiting for the conversation to end.

I’m not alone. Conversations like this can be the norm in many businesses. Everyone plays it safe. Nobody gets upset and it maintains the status quo.

The problem: your company grows or stagnates, one conversation at a time.

Fake conversations will result in flatline results.

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott Summary Image

Contrast this to a Fierce Conversation.

“It’s like the first parachute jump from an airplane. In anticipation, you perspire and your mouth goes dry. Once you’ve left the plane, it’s an adrenaline rush that is indescribable.”

You come out from the shadows. You are fully present, engaging in the conversation. You directly address what is at stake. You engage in radical candor.

Here is an example:

A friend who is a high-level executive, intimidating to many, recently promoted a courageous employee who walked into his office with a large bucket of sand and poured it on the rug. “What the hell are you doing?” demanded my friend. The employee replied, “I just figured I’d make it easier for you to bury your head in the sand on the topic I keep bringing up and you keep avoiding.”

Now where is that bucket of sand…..

Fierce does not mean barbarous, menacing, or cruel. Fierce means powerful, strong, unbridled, unrestrained, robust. It means coming out from behind ourselves into the conversation and making it real.

If you are a leader, your job is to enable business outcomes. How will you increase your chances of success? In large part, by making every conversation you have as real as possible.

How to start a Fierce conversation:

  1. Name the issue to be addressed.

  2. Select a specific example that illustrates the non-participation or situation you want to change.

  3. Describe your emotions about this issue.

  4. Clarify what is at stake.

  5. Identify your contribution to this problem.

  6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.

  7. Invite your partner to respond.

Chose to live your life at the conversational cliff edge.



3 Big Ideas from Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott 💡

Big Idea 1 - Our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.

While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage, or a life, any single conversation can. The conversation is the relationship. The notion that our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time is at once commonsensical and revolutionary. It is commonsensical because all of us have had conversations that, for better or worse, profoundly altered our professional or personal lives. It is revolutionary because a course on conversations won’t be found in an MBA curriculum. Yet who among us hasn’t spent time and energy cleaning up the aftermath of a significant but failed conversation? Each conversation we have with our coworkers, customers, significant others, and children either enhances those relationships, flat-lines them, or takes them down.

Big Idea 2 - Companies derail because people don’t say what they are really thinking.

We don’t know what people are thinking unless they tell us. And even then, there’s no guarantee they’re telling us what they really think. Yet, if asked, most people avow that they want to hear the truth, even if it is unpalatable. When someone takes you up on your invitation to challenge your strongly held opinion, resist the temptation to defend your idea immediately. Also, it isn’t always helpful to look to the person with the most experience. Instead, look to the person with the best vantage point. Who is standing right at the juncture where things are happening? Who has the fifty-yard-line seat on the action? That person isn’t always the designated leader. Also, who stands squarely downstream and, therefore, will be impacted by any decisions you make?

Big Idea 3 - While many are afraid of “real,” it is the unreal conversation that should scare us to death.

Whoever said talk is cheap was mistaken. Unreal conversations are incredibly expensive for organizations and for individuals. Every organization wants to feel it’s having a real conversation with its employees, its customers, its territory, and with the unknown future that is emerging around it. Each individual wants to have conversations that are somehow building his or her world of meaning. Most leaders suspect that things would go more smoothly if they spent more time with the individuals on their leadership team and that they, in turn, should do the same with the people who report to them. So we carve out the time, sometimes grudgingly. A leader schedules a meeting with a direct report. What happens? Not much. Just space, uncomfortable space, stretching out in front of you. Many do not make it past “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Many of us have imagined saying, “By the way, I only have three days to live,” or “I robbed a bank and I’m running away with the bartender at Trudy’s Tavern,” just to see if anyone would notice.


Best Quotes from Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott 💡

The Seven Principles of Fierce Conversations

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.

No plan survives its collision with reality, and reality has a habit of shifting, at work and at home. Markets and economies change, requiring shifts in strategy. People change and forget to tell each other—colleagues, customers, spouses, friends. We are all changing all the time. Not only do we neglect to share this with others, we are skilled at masking it even to ourselves.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.

While many fear “real,” it is the unreal conversation that should scare us to death. Unreal conversations are expensive, for the individual and the organization. No one has to change, but everyone has to have the conversation. When the conversation is real, the change occurs before the conversation is over. You will accomplish your goals in large part by making every conversation you have as real as possible.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.

Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does.

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today.

Burnout doesn’t occur because we’re solving problems; it occurs because we’ve been trying to solve the same problem over and over. The problem named is the problem solved. Identify and then confront the real obstacles in your path. Stay current with the people important to your success and happiness. Travel light, agenda-free.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts.

Don’t just trust your instincts—obey them. Your radar screen works perfectly. It’s the operator who is in question. An intelligence agent is sending you messages every day, all day. Tune in. Pay attention. Share these thoughts with others. What we label as illusion is the scent of something real coming close.

Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake.

For a leader, there is no trivial comment. Something you don’t remember saying may have had a devastating impact on someone who looked to you for guidance and approval. The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship. Learning to deliver the message without the load allows you to speak with clarity, conviction, and compassion.

Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting.

When there is simply a whole lot of talking going on, conversations can be so empty of meaning they crackle. Memorable conversations include breathing space. Slow down the conversation, so that insight can occur in the space between words and you can discover what the conversation really wants and needs to be about.

Fierce Conversation Structure:

  • Step 1: Identify the most pressing issue. The issue that we most need to resolve is:

  • Step 2: Clarify the issue. What is going on? How long has this been going on? How bad are things?

  • Step 3: Determine the current impact. How is this issue currently impacting us? What results are currently being produced in this situation? How is this issue currently impacting others? What results are currently being produced for them by this situation?

  • Step 4: Determine the future implications. If nothing changes, what’s likely to happen? What’s at stake for me? What’s at stake for others? When I consider these possible outcomes, what are my emotions?

  • Step 5: Examine your personal contribution to this issue. What is my contribution to this issue? (How have I contributed to the problem?)

  • Step 6: Describe the ideal outcome. When this issue is resolved, what difference will that make? What results will I enjoy? When this issue is resolved, what results will others enjoy? When I imagine this resolution, what are my emotions?

  • Step 7: Commit to action. What is the most potent step I could take to move this issue toward resolution? What’s going to attempt to get in my way, and how will I get past it? When will I take this step?

Unconsciously, we end our conversations as soon as we initiate them, too afraid of what we might say or hear.

The ability to hide out at meetings was so prevalent at one company that the behavior eventually got a name. Picture a leader holding forth from one end of the boardroom table. She is espousing the cleverness of the current strategy. Like all good leaders, at some point she offers an opportunity for others to respond. Something like, “So what do you think?” It gets quiet around the table. Unnaturally quiet. Like the quiet before a tornado, when birds fall silent and not a leaf stirs and a bilious sky warns of an approaching storm. Around the table, eyes fall. Each individual practices the art of personal stealth technology, attempting to drop beneath the leader’s radar screen. At one point the leader calls on some poor bloke who is less skilled at vanishing than his team members. “Jim, what do you think of the plan?” Jim gets that look on his face like a cat occupied in the litter box—sort of far away as if to indicate that he is not really here and neither are you. The leader waits Jim out. Jim has to do something. Jim nods. His head moves up and down as he gazes fixedly at a spot on the boardroom table. The leader smiles. “And what about you, Elaine?” the leader persists. Elaine steps into the litter box. Head down. Eyes averted. She nods. And so forth around the table, as the leader scans the room. The Corporate Nod. Satisfied, the leader concludes, “Good. We launch on Monday.”

When you are in the presence of knowledgeable but cautious individuals, once you’ve made your proposal or described the issue, don’t just ask, “What do you think?” Invite questions. Check for understanding. Say, “Before we go any further, please ask any clarifying questions you may have.” If you notice someone who is silent but looks puzzled or concerned, ask, “Alison, what questions do you have?”

Example of a Fierce Conversation:

Mark didn’t look at me. During my conversation with Mark, no matter who was talking, he simply did not look at me. Eventually I said, “While we’ve been talking, I’ve noticed you haven’t looked at me.” Mark smiled, glanced at me, then looked away and responded, “I haven’t decided if I like you yet.” “So until you’ve made up your mind whether or not you like me, you will withhold eye contact?” He smiled again. “That’s what I do.” “Do you do this with members of your executive team? For whatever period of time it takes you to decide whether or not you like them … you withhold eye contact?” “That’s right.” “Well, I feel it acutely, this withholding of yourself, of your approval, and I’m puzzled. You invited me here to produce a result you say you want. It seems we should be collaborating. I’d like to feel you are joining me in this conversation, and it would help if you’d look at me while we talk.” Mark was looking at me now. Not smiling. I wondered if he would stand up and say, “We’re done. You’re outta here.” But instead, he thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, let’s work.” “One more thing,” I offered. “If you are not looking at the people on your team when you’re talking with them, be aware that they may feel they’re invisible to you. Devalued. I don’t imagine that’s what you want.” Half an hour later, as Mark introduced me, he said, “Susan practices what she preaches. I know. She told me I had lousy eye contact and that it didn’t feel very good. So I’m going to work on that.” Fifty people smiled and nodded.

One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships. It is possible, however, to create high-intimacy, low-maintenance relationships—one relatively brief conversation at a time.

Unconsciously, we end our conversations as soon as we initiate them, too afraid of what we might say or hear.

For many people, the answer to the question “What’s the opposite of talking?” is “Waiting to talk.”

A simple exercise. Ask a team member to share a challenge. Give everyone else distinct listening roles.

  • Group 1 - Listen for content

  • Group 2 - Listen for emotion

  • Group 3 - Listen for intent


After a few minutes I stopped David and asked each group to tell him what they had “heard.” The content group fed his words back to him almost verbatim. David nodded. The emotion group picked up on his frustration, embarrassment, and helplessness. David acknowledged all of this. The group listening for intent delivered the blow: “You aren’t going to do anything about this. Right now, it’s all just words.” David blanched and disagreed with their assessment. On the very next break, he helped himself to brownies.

When we listen beyond words for intent, for the scaffolding on which a story hangs, clarity and character emerge. We need to listen this way to ourselves, not just to others.

What are some reasonable goals and outcomes for fierce one-to-ones?

  • Reality will be interrogated.

  • Learning will be provoked.

  • People will be mobilised to tackle the tough challenges.

  • The relationship will be enriched.

What are the most common mistakes made during one-to-ones?

  • Doing most of the talking.

  • Taking the problem away from someone.

  • Not inquiring about feelings.

  • Delivering unclear messages, unclear coaching, and unclear instructions.

  • Canceling the meeting.

  • Allowing interruptions. Turn off your cell phone and your e-mail alert, and hit the “do not disturb” button on your telephone.

  • Running out of time. Every

  • The conversation hasn’t ended just because the conversation has ended.

Assuming your one-to-ones are effective. I know someone who periodically opens a one-to-one by giving his clients a form. He says, “When you looked at today’s schedule and noticed our meeting, what was your immediate reaction? Pick one.”

The form has seven choices:

  1. Okay, no big deal.

  2. Oh no, two hours wasted!

  3. Should I cancel and reschedule?

  4. Maybe I can shorten this today.

  5. Great! I need to talk about________.

  6. Great, a few moments of sanity.

  7. Other___________ Is he guaranteed a candid response? That depends on how he has handled feedback in the past.

Making Decisions Metaphor

The president of the company I worked for in my late twenties took me through this exercise when I was promoted to my first management role. She drew a rough sketch of a tree and said: Think of our company as a green and growing tree that bears fruit. In order to ensure its ongoing health, countless decisions are made daily, weekly, monthly. Right now in your development, you have a good history of making decisions in these areas [we reviewed those areas]. So let’s think of these areas as leaf level decisions. Make them, act on them, don’t tell me what you did. Let’s make it our goal to move more decisions out to the leaf level. That’s how you and I will both know you’re developing as a leader. She pointed to her sketch of the tree and explained four categories of decisions. Leaf Decisions: Make the decision. Act on it. Do not report the action you took. Branch Decisions: Make the decision. Act on it. Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly. Trunk Decisions: Make the decision. Report your decision before you take action. Root Decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from many people. These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

How (NOT) to start a hard conversation:

  1. Don’t Ask: So, How’s It Going? “How are things going?” is an age-old lead-in to bad news.

  2. Don’t Feed a Shit Sandwich: You share a positive that masks the negative.

  3. Don’t Use Too Many Pillows: Sometimes we put so many pillows around a message that the message gets lost altogether.

  4. Don’t Stick to a Script: Many of us have a tendency to script in our minds what we think someone else will do or say if we bring up a certain topic.

  5. Don’t Go All Guns Blazing: Unfortunately we are all familiar with the person who confronts with heavy artillery. This individual is so terrorized by the notion of confrontation that he gets the adrenaline flowing, then runs into the room and hurls the message with vitriol or vengeance.

How we enter our conversations is how we emerge from them.

There are seven components to an opening statement:

  1. Name the issue.

  2. Select a specific example that illustrates the behaviour or situation you want to change.

  3. Describe your emotions about this issue.

  4. Clarify what is at stake.

  5. Identify your contribution to this problem.

  6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.

  7. Invite your partner to respond.

You have sixty seconds to do it all.

Popular reasons for avoiding Fierce Conversations:

  1. “They can’t handle it.”

  2. “They’ll get defensive.”

  3. “They’ll be hurt.”

  4. “They won’t talk about it.”

  5. “They’ll get emotional, irrational, angry, illogical.”

  6. “They’ll retaliate!”

A careful conversation is a failed conversation.

Your confusion is an asset; in fact, your search for clarity may blaze a path for others.

Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative. Our individual wakes are larger than we know. An emotional wake is what you remember after I’m gone. What you feel. The aftermath, aftertaste, or afterglow. Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us in the organization.

Common Fierce Conversation Traps:

  1. Blaming: “This whole thing is your fault.” “It’s you, not me.” “You really screwed this up.”

  2. Name calling: “You’re an insensitive narcissist.” “You’re a liar.” “You're a failure.”

  3. Sarcasm “Apparently, your life goal is to live on the cutting edge of mediocrity.” “Seems you’ve hit bottom and have started to dig.”

  4. Catastrophizing: “You don’t love me and never did.” “This ruins everything. We’re finished.”

  5. Threatening: “Guess you don’t value your job.” “You’ll never see your kids again.” “You do this one more time and…” “Look, I don’t want to pull rank, but…”

  6. Exaggerating. “You always do this.” “Never once have you…” …This is the hundredth time …”

  7. Superiority: “You don’t get it.” “You can’t handle it.” “You aren’t making any sense at all.” “I can’t get through to you.”

  8. Bringing up history: “This is just like the time when you….”

  9. Asking, “Why did you do that?” instead of “What were you trying to do?” I get a less defensive response with the second question.

  10. Making blatantly negative facial expressions. No matter what I say, if I am angry or disappointed, how I feel is written all over my face.

Do not begin your comments with “Truthfully …” or “Frankly …” or “Honestly …” That always makes me wonder if someone wasn’t speaking truthfully before. Just speak truthfully, frankly, and honestly, and get on with it.

How to be prepared before a Fierce Conversation:

  1. Think about the ideal emotional wake you want to leave from the conversation.

  2. Remember that being in a relationship with the person, is more important than being right all the time.

  3. Recognize that there are multiple truths.

  4. Remember to say less and listen more.

  5. Find words that accurately name or describe what you want to say.

  6. Allow space for other interpretations.

  7. Don’t use absolutes: “You NEVER…” “You ALWAYS …”

If we do not learn to say no, there will be no space in our lives when a powerful yes appears.

The best leaders talk with people, not at them.

Talking at people is a common affliction.

Never mistake talking for conversation.

Many leaders don’t have one-to-ones. They have ‘ones.’ It’s one person talking at the other. Ensure you are really having one-TO-ones.

As adults, we fear that silence may be interpreted as low self-esteem or questionable intelligence. We feel we’re expected to interject witty comments and wise observations on the spot. Many feel silence is a form of nonparticipation, signaling lack of interest. We fear people will think we have nothing more to say. The worry may be “If I just sit here and think for a moment, somebody else will jump in and say the clever thing I would have liked to say.”

During my conversations with the people most important to me, silence has become my favourite sound, because that is when the work is being done. Of all the tools I use during conversations and all the principles I keep in mind, silence is the most powerful of all. Deepak Chopra refers to the space between thoughts as the place where insight can make itself known.

And what do you do when the conversation has lost its way? Sometimes the simplest thing you can say is “I’m sorry, I’ve lost the thread.”

During company meetings, often the best responses, the most brilliant solutions, come from the person who has sat silently listening for a very long time while the rest of us filled the air with debate. Even when called upon, such an individual often appears reluctant to speak, sitting in reflective silence for signalling moments while others click ballpoint pens and glance at their watches. Then he or she speaks, and everyone else in the room is compelled to shift to a broader, wiser perspective, with the result that elegant, complete answers begin to emerge.

Silence has become my favourite sound, because that is when the work is being done. Of all the tools I use during conversations and all the principles I keep in mind, silence is the most powerful of all.

Dangerous Silences

  • Silence of nonparticipation, of passivity, of I really don’t care what you do or what you think.

  • Silence as passive aggression, intended as punishment. I don’t like what you did or said, so I’m just not gonna play. I will withhold myself from you. See how you like that!

  • Silence of conspiracy in an organization in which team members have taken the omertà, the Mafia vow of silence, not to tell who did it.

Common reasons why people stay quiet:

  1. “What do I know? She’s the expert.”

  2. “No use saying anything. He doesn’t care what I think.”

  3. “I have no idea what needs to happen here, so it’s best to keep my mouth shut and pretend I’m tracking.”

  4. “Nothing I say will make any difference. Why bother?”

  5. “She’s just going through a hard time, just needs to talk.”

  6. “I’m bored, fatigued, impatient with this person [and/ or this topic]. I’ll adopt an attitude of polite indifference and hope it’s over soon.”

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1 Comment

Anna Myagkaya
Anna Myagkaya
Apr 24

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