A Wooden Lid
by Susan Scott

Someone recently asked me why the first principle of Fierce Conversations is: "Master the courage to interrogate reality?" He asked, "Why doesn't it simply read - Interrogate reality?" It's because, time and time again, experience has shown that reality is in no danger of being interrogated without at least a modicum of courage. Not thoroughly. Not truly. And why is that? Interrogating reality involves risk. The risk is that, in sharing your view of reality, you will be seen, known, exposed. After all, some degree of safety and comfort is lost when we come out from behind ourselves into a conversation and take a controversial stand. And the greater risk is that, in understanding others' realities, you may be changed. In fact, fierce conversations are a marvelous cure for excessive certitude.

I'm reminded of a tribe in Africa where a villager greets another, "Sawu bona." Translated - I see you. The response is, "Sikhona." I am here. It is as if, until you see me, I do not exist.

I see you. I am here. What a nice way to begin a conversation! Organizations benefit from "beach ball" conversations, during which members of the team describe reality from their unique vantage points on their blue, yellow, and green stripes. Each of us must show up fully, must offer our honest perspective, so that multiple, sometimes competing realities can be interrogated. Until we are willing and able to see others' views, an organization or family can find itself crippled by factionalism, turf wars, and out-sized egos rather than enjoying meaningful conversations and frictionless debates.

In case some of you are still thinking ... What's the big deal? Showing up authentically isn't that rare, is it? Well, yes, sorry to say, it is. I was reminded of its rarity in July while reading an Associated Press article by Ron Fournier in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The article speculated on the effect on presidential decisions now that Karen Hughes no longer resides in Washington D.C. The article reads in part:

"The day before his inauguration, George W. Bush pointed to Karen Hughes at a staff meeting and told his other top advisers, 'I don't want any important decision made without her in the room.' Bush's order was strictly enforced. No major presidential conclusion, event or public utterance has escaped the eyes and ears of Hughes - perhaps the most influential woman ever to have served a president. In her spacious corner office at the White House, Hughes (was) asked what the president will miss most about her. She reaches across a pile of papers and grabs a wooden lid from her desk ... 'This unvarnished lid is here to remind me that I'm supposed to give him my unvarnished opinion,' Hughes said."

Who around you regularly lets you know what they really think? What's really going on? Are you getting candid opinions or have they been varnished to a high gloss? And when was the last time you shared what you were really thinking or feeling?

So, as Shakespeare would say, "Screw your courage to the sticking place." And take the time needed to interrogate reality. How much time? Whatever it takes! While interrogating reality can take time, anything else takes longer. Stop for a moment and recall what has happened to implementation of the best laid plans when essential truths were disregarded. No plan survives its collision with reality.

In Jim Collins' book, Good to Great, he mentions Fred Purdue, an executive at Pitney Bowes, who said, "When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down, or you can say, 'My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,' even if what you see can scare the hell out of you." Pitney Bowes created a long standing tradition of forums where people could stand up and tell senior executives what the company was doing wrong, shoving rocks with squiggly things in their faces, and saying, "Look! You'd better pay attention to this."

Either we are going to turn over the rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, or we are going to put the rocks down and keep quiet for fear of what the leader would say, think or do. In an organizaiton where people are more concerned about pleasing the leader rather than interrogating reality, you can be assured you are headed towards a really bad day.

No leader can know everything because no one can be in all places at all times. Jim Hartman, a financial advisor, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I have no confidence in recommending an individual stock to somebody. It isn't because of what I know. It's because of what I don't know."

What don't you know? And sometimes we need to ask ourselves, what am I pretending not to know?

If your instinct suggests that essential bits and pieces of reality are being edited out of your conversations with people essential to your organizations' success, you may be the problem. The questions is, "How can I become the kind of person to whom people will speak the truth?"

A good place to begin is to gather together the people whose realities deserve interrogating and ask them to share their perspective. Really ask. Our radar informs us when someone is not really asking. And when that happens, we don't really answer.

Who should you invite to the conversation? Err on the side of inviting more people to the table rather than fewer. When goals are to be set, strategies to be designed, decisions to be made that will affect the well-being of your company or any important relationship, it isn't always helpful to look for the person with the most experience. Instead, look for the person with the best vantage point. Who is standing right at the juncture where things are happening? Who has the 50-yard-line seat on the action? That person isn't always the designated leader. The best companies to work for are consistently described by employees as those in which everyone has a place at the table.

Every single person in the company/relationship owns a piece of the truth about what color the company/relationship is and no one owns the entire truth because no one can view it from all perspectives all of the time.

Multiple, often competing truths, existing simultaneously.

The discovery in our work with clients has been that most people don't require that others always agree with us. Where the conflict begins is when their point of view has not been heard. "I just ask that you hear me out so that you understand what I'm suggesting. Then, if you want to make a decision that's different than the one I'd make, you know what, I can live with that."

But if our boss or colleague or significant other or customer essentially says, "This is where we're going and I don't have the time or the interest in learning your views about this topic," well... implementation is in no immediate danger of occurring. Even worse, while we may remain present physically and perhaps look like we're going through the motions, we may eventually absent our spirit from the work, from the relationship. Others may not recognize it right away, but all of us will immediately begin paying the price. It's really expensive when that happens.

And after you've really asked, what is your second task? To really listen.

Susan Scott is the author of Fierce Conversations - Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time. How do you inspire followers, attract believers, win contracts, and build visions that become reality? One conversation at a time. One fierce conversation at a time, if you've ever worked with Susan Scott. For additional information visit http://www.fierceinc.com/ .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Susan Scott. All rights reserved.

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