Putting the “Con” Back in Conversation

Excerpt from “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott (revised/updated May 2017).

Do you know someone who will most likely die with his or her mouth open? Many CEOs I know would make this list. That is not good. A dazzling way with words rarely proves to be enough to guarantee success as a leader. Joseph Conrad suggested, “To have the gift of words is no such great matter. A man furnished with a long-range weapon does not become a hunter or a warrior by the mere possession of a firearm; many other qualities of character and temperament are necessary to make him either one or the other.”

Many people attempt to forge relationships exclusively through words. Lots of words. But consider the word, “conversation.” You’ll remember that it begins with “con,” which means “with” in Spanish. The best leaders talk with people, not at them. Emerging entrepreneurs have special challenges. They can get so wrapped up in telling the story of their businesses in order to attract employees, vendors, and investors that they no longer have conversations. They stick to their practiced scripts, unable to improvise or offer new insight, forever circling back to their rehearsed messaging. They have “versations.” Politicians are aces at this.

Talking at or to people versus with people is a common affliction. In fact, on a purely practical note, did you know 8 out of 10 sales proposals fail? And 50 percent of those eight fail because we spent too much time talking about the features and benefits of our product, and not enough time talking with the customer, listening to learn where it hurts, so to speak, and what they actually need, before we explain how wonderful doing business with us would be. Several years ago, the sales team for the Northwest division of a well-known global company went through training in Fierce Conversations. Following the training, they changed the customer conversation with seemingly minor, subtle shifts and outperformed all other teams worldwide.

We all know people, intent on impressing us, who talk so much that they turn us off completely. Such people are often unconscious of the effect they are having on others, as they run on endlessly about their accomplishments and clever ideas.

They may be spectacularly brilliant. They may be kind and good-hearted, with a work ethic that would buckle John Calvin’s knees. The trouble is, it wears us out to be with them. They talk incessantly, going from one story to the next, without taking a noticeable breath. Though their stories are at times entertaining and laced with insight, after a while, we get the feeling we are merely a spot on the wall to which they direct their comments.

I recall having dinner with a man who was clearly performing for everyone within earshot. Not only was he not talking with me, he wasn’t even talking at me. He was just talking, loudly enough to be overheard, hoping to impress. It was a serious turnoff. I prefer the company of those who are comfortable with silence. I’m with Sherlock Holmes, who said to his sidekick, Dr. Watson, “You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.”

In “Siddhartha,” Hermann Hesse writes, “Within you, there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey begins, “I’m busy, really busy. But sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing will make any difference in the long run.”

Montaigne wrote, “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays. I would make decisions. But it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.”

It is exceedingly difficult, almost impossible, to gain a firm footing in conversations filled with noise. At a party recently, several guests had paired off in conversation, attempting to use the opportunity of time together to have real, meaningful talks with their partners. But the noise of all the other guests interfered with their ability to discern the message and intent of the one person to whom they were trying to listen. Struggling to be heard, each speaker became louder and louder, but that only increased the total noise in the room, making it even more difficult to hear. Several individuals periodically shouted into cell phones. What happened next? Most people gave up and settled for the traditional cocktail party chitchat. As Yogi Berra said, “It was impossible to get a conversation going; everyone was talking too much.”

There is a place for big, noisy gatherings. I enjoy the energy, the full sensory experience, of a space filled with high-spirited individuals: at family gatherings during the holidays, for instance, or at parties celebrating individual or organizational milestones. However, while there are remarkable conversations to be experienced in the crush of crowds, amid the din of voices and music, the need for spaciousness in our most important conversations inspires me to take work teams on retreat to places where we can build a fire, rather than to a traditional hotel. We have taken over a small lodge in Sun Valley. We have rented log homes on the Deschutes River in Bend, OR. We have boated in the San Juan Islands. We had time to simply to hang out beside a crackling fire, cook dinner together, have s’mores, and talk about nothing, about something.

And when it was time to talk, we turned off our cell phones. In theaters an announcement is usually made before the curtain goes up. “Please turn off all cell phones, and if you have a piece of candy or a breath mint, please unwrap it now.” I wish important meetings, important conversations began with similar instructions.

Excerpt from “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time” by Susan Scott. For more information, visit: https://www.amazon.com/Fierce-Conversations-Achieving-Success-Conversation/dp/0425193373

Susan Scott is a best-selling author and leadership development architect who has enabled top executives worldwide to engage in vibrant dialogue with one another, with their employees, and with their customers for two decades. Scott sets the company’s strategic vision and creates the culture through her ongoing commitment to ensure employees are engaged, communication is candid, and learning is continuous. For 13 years, Scott ran think tanks for CEOs and designed and delivered training to peers working with CEOs in 18 countries. In 2002, “Fierce Conversations—Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time,” was published in four countries and, shortly thereafter, was listed on the Wall Street Journal and UPI best seller lists, and was one of USA TODAY’s top 40 business books of 2002. A heavily revised and updated version was published in May 2017. Her second book, “Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst ‘Best’ Practices of Business Today,” was published September 15, 2009. In its debut week, the book was listed on the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times best-seller lists.



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