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The 7 principles of fierce conversations every leader should know

The 7 principles of fierce conversations every leader should know

This post has been updated on February 2, 2024.

Being a good communicator helps a lot in any job. It also helps a lot in life. Yet reality shows that the majority of us are not naturally great at it – most tv series and motion pictures count on human inability to express thoughts and feelings correctly in the construction of their scripts. For everybody not in show business, the communication gaps and misunderstandings are sources of grief and frustration.

General guidelines about how to be assertive, how to elaborate your messages, and how to mind the feedback you receive are everywhere. When it comes to hard conversations, however, practical information gets scarce. Leaders in the modern corporate world face the challenge of carrying out almost impossible discussions with peers, clients, bank managers, and team members. Situations change, demands rise, and sending memos is a thing of the past.

Read more: On designing a great L&D communication plan

The 7 principles of fierce conversations

In her book "Fierce conversations,” Susan Scott identifies seven principles that serve, as she states in the introductory chapter, as a "guide to tackling your toughest challenges and enriching relationships with everyone important to your success and happiness through principles, tools, and assignments designed to direct you through your first fierce conversations with yourself on to the most challenging and important conversations facing you."

  1. Master the courage to interrogate reality

    At first glance, it seems like a nonsensical thing to do. Reality just is, it needn't be interrogated. We live in the present and the spread of the internet has rendered all of us more informed than ever before. Right? Well, not so much. We connect with the people who are similar to us, we follow blogs and channels that interest us and say what we want to hear. Most people live in their own bubble and are not really aware of when and how things change. Or how other people change, for that matter. Getting out of the comfort zone and probing how things truly stand is highly necessary.

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

    Susan Scott says that it is not the genuine conversations we should dread but the unreal ones – they may not be uncomfortable while they are happening but in the long run, they are the ones that are detrimental. Talking just for the sake of talking does not solve anything and in the end, proves to run rather expensive both for the individual and for the organization. When it’s paramount for things or people to change in order to get out of a situation or to simply make some progress, a real conversation is key. It will lead to transformation before it is even over.

  3. Be here, prepared to be nowhere else

    A difficult conversation requires a true presence. There is a lot of value placed these days on a thing called "mindfulness.” It’s the art (or skill) of being in the moment and dealing with things as they happen instead of wondering what could have gone differently in the past or projecting what the future will look like. It’s not guaranteed that an organization or an individual will change because of one discussion, but it’s not impossible either. A hard talk has to be planned and carried out with the utmost attention and participation. Otherwise, it won’t count.

    Read more: Considering mindfulness training for increased employee productivity

  4. Tackle your toughest challenge today

    We all tend to avoid or postpone things that make us uncomfortable. While that is natural, it is also counterproductive because we end up carrying around a burden or worry a lot longer than it would be necessary. Once the problem is named it is almost solved. Figuring out what the greatest issue is and dealing with it on the spot instead of floating it to undefinable times will ensure a much smoother path. Getting rid of the daunting agenda and staying current with those who are really important will bring a better vibe and a greater chance of success.

  5. Obey your instincts

    Our instincts are responsible for our survival and evolution. They come from the oldest part of our brain and to this day are responsible for all decision making. The limbic brain, however, does not have the capacity for language, so most of the time when we do or don’t do something we can’t really explain our reasons and resort to "it’s just a gut feeling.” In difficult conversations, it's important to not only trust but actually go with instincts. It’s yet another way of being present, aware, and (though it doesn’t seem like for lack of worded arguments) in control.

  6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake

    This principle is my personal favorite because, as a trainer, I have often had to deliver feedback that was not necessarily great. For a long time, the company requirement was that I do so in a "sandwich manner" – say something positive, give the 'constructive' criticism, and end with something even more positive. There was a great fear of hurting feelings or giving wrong impressions, but that’s precisely what happened. A genuine message has to be delivered without this kind of negative load. One of the most powerful insights of this book is that the conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship.

  7. Let silence do the heavy lifting

    When there is too much talk in a conversation, ideas are very likely to be lost between words. Just as motivational speakers know that pauses are needed in order for things to sink in and reach the cords they were meant to, fierce conversations need silence as well. Insight occurs in the spaces between the words being spoken. Memorable talks have breathing time and allow for inner dialogue. That’s where a-ha moments happen and how true change occurs.


I find there is no better conclusion to this model than the one of the author’s herself:

“We must answer the big questions in our organizations. What are the questions that need posing? Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and great teachers have debated this for ages:

  • What is real?
  • What is honest?
  • What is quality?
  • What has value?

We affect change by engaging in robust conversations with ourselves, our colleagues, our customers, our family, the world. Whether you are governing a country, running an organization, or participating in a committed personal relationship, your ability to effect change will increase as you become more responsive to your world and to the individuals who are central to your happiness and success."