How do you have a Fierce Conversation?

Brave leadership takes many forms… Dr Naomi Irvine spoke to the National Leadership Forum about the nature of our conversations.

On 29th January 2020 we hosted the National Leadership Forum, bringing together 400 public service leaders for discussions about how we are Working Together; as a system.

In the spirit of sharing the insights from the day, we have written blog posts describing the content of the discussions.

Dr Naomi Irvine specialises in helping individuals to find their voice in complex organisations, focusing on courageous conversations, personal effectiveness, leadership development, coaching and mentoring.

Dr Naomi Irvine opening conversations

In her session Fierce Conversations, Naomi explained how business is fundamentally based around the conversations you are having all the time with your colleagues, customers, clients and suppliers. This was a session delegates were very curious about, filling the room very quickly. The responses and insights shared illustrate the need for these conversations, and Naomi very quickly created an environment where public leaders felt safe to share. It was evident that leaders are experiencing similar thoughts and challenges across sectors.

FierceⓇ believe that careers, projects, organisations will succeed or fail as a result of the conversations that take place. Modelling behaviour and encouraging others to change their conversations will positively impact the outcomes of an individual and the organisation. A culture of trust and safety is an essential part of being able to have these conversations.

We don’t know what we don’t know, so conversations and dialogue help to unearth information we need to make good decisions and tackle problems. Much of the time these conversations are complex and they will be uncomfortable, for example confronting an issue that you are pretending is not there. The uncomfortable nature resonated with a number of leaders in the room, from confronting your Chair to one-to-one conversations with your team.

It is only once this dialogue has opened up, real change and progress can be made. Fierce ConversationsⓇ teaches individuals how to ignite productive dialogue that interrogates reality, provokes learning, tackles tough challenges and enriches relationships.

Why we need to have ‘Fierce conversations’

The aim of this session was to help leaders identify what they were ‘pretending not to know’ and confront those ‘elephants in the room’ in their organisations. Naomi used group discussion to tease out their wicked problems and think about known unknowns.

During the introduction to Fierce Conversations, attendees were asked the following questions:

- What are the challenges and difficulties for the culture to have these conversations?

- Do you know the importance of the conversation you are having?

- If you wanted an honest answer, what question would you ask?

- Which issue, when solved, would have the biggest impact?

These questions will enable you to ignite a fierce conversation with your team. By exploring the perspectives of others you can build a clearer picture of reality, and when perspectives are shared, new knowledge is created. Group discussions indicated this was something that resonated with leaders within their teams, and across public services as a whole, in keeping with the theme of the day, ‘Working Together’.

Fierce conversations involve being curious and asking tough questions. Delegates were introduced to a set of questions which can be used as a starting point to open up this dialogue between each other as leaders and with colleagues in their own organisation.

Questions included:

- What are we pretending not to know?

- What are you afraid of asking?

- What are you hoping I won’t bring up?

- What’s the most important thing we talk about today?

- What can we stop doing?

It’s important to ask yourself: are you actively listening, or are you just hearing and responding? These conversations require you to speak with your real voice, and share your real ideas and sentiments.

Delegates were left with the final thought of what one leaves behind when you have a conversation…an aftertaste, an aftermath or an afterglow?

Let us know your thoughts on fierce conversations or any other issues around leadership, systems working and collaboration in public services. Get in touch by email on NLC@CabinetOffice.gov.uk or by Twitter @NLC_HQ.

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