Professional development: How to receive fierce conversations

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
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Much has been written & discussed about delivering difficult conversations as a leader, but not as much has been said about how to receive them. Caroline Sherwood offers her reflections based around the seven principles of Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations

It is a rare day that I don’t have the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (2002) in my work bag.

It considers how to have conversations that really count. The Fierce approach is built on a single premise – what gets talked about in a company, how it gets talked about, and who is invited to the conversation determines what will happen. And what won’t happen.

When your business is education, those conversations can change lives. Now more than ever.

Scott defines “fierce” as robust, intense, strong, powerful and passionate. And if we pause to consider the antonym of “fierce” we have: apathetic, indifferent, quiet and gentle.

However, fierce conversations at work are not cruel conversations – they are important ones; perhaps conversations you might not want to have but need to have. Likewise, they might be conversations you don’t want to hear – but need to hear.

Much has been written and discussed about delivering fierce (or difficult) conversations. Perhaps not as much has been written or discussed about how to receive these conversations.

As a leader in a school, I need to not only effectively initiate these important conversations – but I need to be the recipient too. I must have candid feedback in order to continue to improve, but how do you receive this information when it is sometimes painful and provocative? Scott outlines seven principles of Fierce Conversations...

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality

The world is changing, and its people are changing as a result. We are all changing all the time. Scott suggests that “your version of reality is as good as anybody’s”, but to “keep in mind that reality can never be absolute”.

There have been times when interrogating my own reality – how things are going for me – has been uncomfortable and doing so with another person can leave me feeling open and vulnerable.

My natural, unyielding inclination is to hide behind reticence, which serves to protect me, particularly if I don’t feel secure. I wear this invisible armour if I am with someone who I feel could damage me.

However, Scott explores the idea of incremental degradation: “If we compromise at work … if we lower standards about how often we talk, what we talk about, and, most important, what degree of authenticity we bring to our conversation – it’s a slow and deadly slide.”

In Dare to Lead (2018), Brené Brown argues that “our ego will do almost anything to avoid minimizing the discomfort associated with feeling vulnerable or even being curious, because it is too risky – what will people think? What if I learn something unpleasant or uncomfortable about myself?”

My ego craves acceptance and approval. This can become a barrier to interrogating my reality. When with a leader who is asking me (with or without my permission) to interrogate my reality, I have to consciously endeavour to be open, be willing, be brave. I attempt to make myself emotionally available to all valuable, genuine feedback.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real

Scott argues that authenticity is not something you have, it is something that you choose. When receiving feedback during a fierce conversation, there are conditions that are conducive to being authentic, and some that are not. There are moments when keeping your authenticity and your authentic self-veiled feels like the only safe option.

In the article, Be yourself, but carefully (2013) Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offermann explore the idea that “authenticity begins with self-awareness: knowing who you are – your values, emotions, and competencies – and how you’re perceived by others. Only then can you know what to reveal and when”.

There have been times when I’ve received feedback and have been authentic with myself but have kept that hidden from the person giving the feedback.

The point here is the willingness to feel discomfort, to make it real. In her TED Talk, The gift and power of emotional courage (2017), Susan Scott suggests that “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.

She goes on to state that “tough emotions are part of our contract with life” and that “you don’t get to… leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort”.

Being willing to lean into the stress and discomfort that a fierce conversation might bring is, in my opinion, vital. Whether or not you share those feelings with the person delivering the fierce message isn’t – you decide what to reveal and when. But don’t compromise with yourself.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else

Scott argues that “if we wish to accomplish great things … we must come to terms with a basic human need: we must recognise that humans share a universal longing to be known and being known, to be loved”.

First, in my case, when receiving feedback, the need for love, as Scott puts it, comes down to professional value – I need to feel valuable and valued enough that I don’t lose it within the message, particularly if the message is leaving me with feelings of stress and discomfort.

Second, the need to be “known”. This comes from “paying fierce attention … really asking, really listening” (Scott again). I’ve worked for a leader when, in his presence, I became a bigger, better human being; I would have followed him anywhere – as would the rest of his staff.

The best feedback, the most actionable, and – in my experience – the most genuine, comes from leaders who “know” me. Without this, Scott says, “we may succeed in hearing every word, yet miss the message altogether”.

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today

Emotional readiness is essential in order to learn from your mistakes, recognise your strengths and weaknesses, and be open and emotionally available to feedback. But know that it is also okay to rearrange a meeting if you are not ready. Just ensure that you do. I have received feedback when I have not been emotionally available, which has made the message hard, if not impossible, to hear.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts

There are things our instinct – our gut – tells us, long before our intellect catches up. However, as Raven Ishak, in the 2017 article How to follow your intuition, says, “some might get their intuition confused with their scared ego”, particularly relevant when you are making a decision based out of fear.

Differentiating between your instincts and your scared ego can be difficult; Ishak goes on to explain “the thoughts that accompany a scared ego” – I'm not good enough, I'm not worthy, I'm not ready or prepared, what if I fail, what if I succeed? or what if I humiliate myself?.

When receiving feedback as part of a fierce conversation, my scared ego will be the first to speak. “I’m not good enough” is a loud voice that I have to purposefully try and supress. When my scared ego is in control, it will absolutely stop me from saying what I am thinking.

Scott highlights the importance of not saying what is easy to say but saying what we have been unable to say. Scott adds: “The most valuable thing any of us can do is to find a way to say the things that can’t be said.”

Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake

Scott defines emotional wake as what you remember after the conversation: what you feel, the aftermath, aftertaste, or afterglow. British writer Elizabeth David (1913-1992) put it perfectly: “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.”

I have had fierce conversations with both types of leader. I still now remember the exact words delivered to me that have taken the heart out of me; they continue to sabotage my thoughts and subsequent actions – they’re relentless.

The leaders that take the heart out of you will only ever see a careful version of yourself; we withhold ourselves from him or her in countless invisible ways. Leaning into fierce conversations conscious of emotional wake is important – it works both ways and, as Scott points out, “you must extend to others what you want to receive. It begins with you”.

Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting

Silence has a purpose in all conversations. Arguably it is most important when receiving feedback, and, as a result, are required to think and reflect. Silence is power in these moments; it is a great source of strength.

In her article, Three reasons to make silence your communication superpower (2020), Carolyn Ellis understands that “silence is the blank space between the words that sparks true understanding and insight”.

A West African proverb states: "Silence is also speech.”

If you don’t get given the silence during your fierce conversation, find time for it outside of the discussion. Often, in my experience, silence is not used enough, perhaps because it feels uncomfortable. However, if you are receiving feedback, and it is to be important and valuable, silence is necessary. How much silence is acceptable? As much as you need.

  • Caroline Sherwood is assistant headteacher for the quality of education at Isca Academy in Exeter, one of three primary schools, five secondary schools, and one all-through campus within the Ted Wragg Trust. To read her previous articles in SecEd, go to

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