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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Diverse Conversations

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Have you noticed how many books are out there on how to have conversations? There are books on powerful, difficult, crucial and fierce conversations. Who knew there were so many flavors?

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Recently, my coaching colleague, Dr. Janice Shack Marquez of the Federal Reserve Board, shared on the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program listserv a terrific summary that compares three of the well known books on conversations. I liked it so much that I asked Janice if she'd like to run it here. She said yes, so here it is. Thanks Janice!

I work in an organization where it is all about the conversation. As with any organization there are plenty of times when this is a real challenge. We also have our own more specific brand of challenge as well. We have more than 200 Ph.Ds on staff. Individual success as an academic researcher depends, in part, on one's ability to dissect and analyze other's arguments. But we are a policy-making organization and success in developing effective policies relies first on valuing other's opinions and independent professional judgments and then on our ability to work as a team to mold independent viewpoints into coherent, effective policies.

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As an executive coach and a leader, I'm always looking for tools to put in my toolkit, so I've been trying to come to an understanding about the distinctions among several excellent books on conversations: Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, Fierce Conversations by Scott, and Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heene and Fisher.
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There are strong similarities between Difficult Conversations and Crucial Conversations. Both deal with how to conduct conversations that are high-stakes and emotionally charged. Difficult Conversations comes out of the Harvard Negotiation Project and shares important insights from law, organizational behavior, cognitive, family and social psychology and "dialogue" studies. The interdisciplinary nature of the Harvard Project provides a strong academic foundation for the reader. They break these difficult conversations into their component parts: the conversation about what happened, the conversation about your feelings about what happened, and how the conversation affects our sense of identity. One of the book's strengths is how to prepare well for tough talks in advance. The techniques in the book are geared toward getting people to lower their defenses, creating mutual respect and understanding, increasing emotional safety, and encouraging freedom of expression. The strength of Crucial Conversations is a formula for high-stakes conversations; this can be valuable for those who want or need the structure.
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In my view, Fierce Conversations is different from Difficult and Crucial in that it focuses on how to have conversations about things that are important, but that may not have risen to the emotionally-charged level. The book is based on principles developed as part of the author's consulting practice. Its thesis is that relationships, both professional and personal, hinge on how conversations go, and that the best conversations require honesty and a willingness to listen. Of course, this is not a new concept, but the focus of the book is squarely on how to have the conversation that needs to be had, rather than the conversation that is easy in the short run. The book includes tools and assignments designed to help the reader develop the skills to have these robust and honest conversations. Fierce's contribution is that it teaches how to have a conversation so that you can avoid having it escalate to difficult or crucial levels.

When I am working with leaders, I find that Fierce Conversations has broad appeal because it focuses on improving the general quality of conversation, where a quality conversation is one that is held with integrity, honesty and forthrightness. And, of course, these are leadership qualities that transcend the conversation.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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