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LeadingAge magazine July/August 2011

Book Reviews

Fierce Conversations

by Andrew Applegate, Vassar Byrd and Colleen Bloom

A Bestseller Worthy of its Rank

by Andrew Applegate 

If you are like me, you are skeptical of the latest bestseller. Like a first flower of spring, it looks really good, but quickly fades, particularly as the temperatures heat up. Management books tend to pop up quickly and fade once they intersect with reality. Happily, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott has deeper roots and perennial staying power. If you are put off by the word “fierce,” rest assured that fierce conversations are simply ones that:

  • Interrogate reality
  • Provoke learning
  • Tackle tough challenges
  • Enrich relationships

This book is not a quick fix for leadership challenges. Scott has tapped into some of the same deep reservoirs as authors such as Ron Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers and Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve. Like these gentlemen, Susan Scott understands that leadership is more than simply staying one step ahead of the mob or finding inventive ways to “manage” (read manipulate) those who are led. Leadership, in her words, comes from a willingness to “come out from behind yourself” and engage in real conversations about real issues. Behind Scott’s various tools and techniques is a realization that leadership is first and foremost about managing yourself and your anxieties as a human being and a leader.

LeadingAge July-Aug 2011 Fierce Conversations

Scott’s seven principles were developed out of real-world experience coaching successful executives. As you read this book you come to see that these principles have survived contact with reality. Personally, I have used some of Scott’s tools to positive effect. I am pleased to share that my less-than-smooth attempts to have fierce conversations have reaped excellent benefits. The best part was that while I was working on improving my own functioning as a leader, my guinea pigs appreciated the conversations and left them having been really heard! Willingness to risk authenticity and doing a little prep work can get you similar results.

If I have one reservation with this book, it has something more to do with me than with Scott. I have benefited over the last year from participating in the LeadingAge Academy, learning from the insight of noted author and facilitator Judy Brown, as well as being enriched through having an executive coach. Both these experiences have challenged me to look at my leadership by focusing, not on the people I lead but the person I am. Each of these experiences has required me to have “fierce conversations” with a sometimes unwilling partner—myself. Those conversations broke up fallow mental territory. It is because of this I believe Susan Scott’s wise words found a ready recipient. I wonder if I would have missed the benefit of this extremely helpful book without the plowing.

But then again, that’s my problem. Get this book. Read it slowly and then read it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Andrew Applegate is executive director, Asbury-Solomons Island, Solomons, Md. 

Casting Light on a Vital Skill

by Vassar Byrd

How hard can it be to have a conversation? I mean, everyone can talk, can’t they? What’s the big deal?

But what is the primary lifeline you have to the people and world around you? Have you ever gotten any training about how to use it? Have you even thought about it as a vital skill to have?

Susan Scott has. She opens her book with a challenge: “Think about it. What are the conversations you’ve been unable or unwilling to have—with your boss, colleague, employee, customer; with your husband, wife, parent, child; or with yourself that, if you were able to have, might change everything?”

If you have ever wondered “How did I get in this situation/relationship/mess anyway?” or “How come things aren’t running more smoothly, because I am really doing a good job here!” this is the book for you. You will be able to identify how you communicate, or don’t, and how to be more direct and clear with your communications, which leads to more direct and clear relationships at work and at home. You will get what you tolerate, so be careful.

This book is well-written and engaging, offering many provocative exercises. Scott offers specific and relevant examples of how to be aware of communication misfires and how to change those into conversations that matter. In the end, this book becomes a do-it-yourself manifesto to increase your own leadership ability.

These issues are particularly relevant to the field of senior services. We work in a people-intensive business in which we primarily sell service, i.e., relationships. Not only is the risk of burnout high, but you can provoke all kinds of liability (from employees, residents, their families) if you are a poor communicator. Remember why you got into this field in the first place. The connection to elders is real and vital and can only nourish you when you nurture it.

Who is more courageous, more willing to seek a fierce, true, clear connection with others than elders? But the tough issues they deal with—aging, grief, loss, family dysfunction, and pain—arrive on huge swells of emotion that can seem to have their own momentum and, if you don’t watch out, they might just sweep you off your feet! So the temptation arises to keep your distance; it’s really the family’s problem anyway, right? You’re just a caregiver/social worker/administrator; you don’t want to cross those professional boundaries with your residents or clients.

The dangers of disengagement are huge, putting yourself, your family, your job and your well-being at risk. This book can help you understand when you aren’t engaged, help you to connect with truth and passion, and to feel the deep satisfaction of being fierce with yourself, above all. How can you keep doing this work if there is no source of clarity and energy and honesty?

The conversation is the relationship. Pay attention.

Vassar Byrd is CEO of Rose Villa Senior Living, Portland, Ore. 

Practical Advice for Professional and Personal Application

by Colleen Bloom

I truly enjoyed Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, the book we read in preparation for the Leadership Summit at the LeadingAge Future of Aging Services Conference this past April. I liked it for its personal as well as professional applications, and easy-to-use exercises. The author offers some very practical tools for efficiently getting at the heart of the matter; for engaging others in identifying and addressing the real issues too often left unspoken.

The best advice is often what you already know to be true, but somehow have forgotten (or fail to apply consistently). And this book is full of concepts that are frequently repeated (because we ARE so good at forgetting them):

  • That the conversation is the relationship
  • That you should ask good questions, and wait for the answers
  • That you should not be afraid of silence (a corollary to “let the silence do the heavy lifting”)
  • That you should look at things from various perspectives (the “beach ball analogy”)
  • The importance of conversations (vs. one-sided “versations”)
  • The risks of entering, or avoiding, a fierce conversation

There is some sense of superfluous, self-indulgent reminiscing, along with expansive descriptions of internal, psychological and/or environmental scenery. These sometimes frustrated me, but at the same time serve as good illustrations of the depth of sensory engagement and quiet reflection we often avoid or think we’re just too busy to truly experience, especially when we’re multitasking or trying to just get through with the book. (Susan Scott would remind us of the importance of being fully present in the conversation, prepared to be nowhere else.)

I’ve heard it said that the main points of the book could probably be summed up in a couple pages, and that may be true for some. For me, however, the true stories give the concepts life and meaning. Even the repetitions are helpful. So, whether for a skim (and the book is very well designed for that), or a detailed read, this is still a book I highly recommend, with skills I’m trying to incorporate into my own life.

Colleen Bloom is LeadingAge’s associate director for housing operations.