Mokita Busters - Fierce Conversations in Chicago

January 16, 2013

Mokita, as Wikipedia will tell you, “is a Papua New Guinean word in the Kivila language… which describes the concept of ‘truth we all know but agree not to talk about.’” And mokitas, to coin a plural, are endemic in organizations that place a high value on avoiding conflict. Churches, for instance.

The people at Fierce, Inc., which has been working with Bishop Jeff Lee and other diocesan leaders since September 2011, are mokita-busters. In Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership, both New York Times bestsellers, Susan Scott, founder of Fierce, Inc., developed principles and best practices for raising and resolving sensitive issues in ways that move an organization forward.

Their particular skill is training people to have the kind of conversations that organizations tend to avoid having in order to spare one another’s feelings, but having those conversations in a respectful way.

“What I love about the Fierce approach is that it is applicable to what people do every day,” said the Rev. Jim Steen, the diocese’s director of ministries, who helped bring Fierce, Inc. to the diocese. “It isn’t about grand concepts for changing organizational cultural, although, it can absolutely do that. It is about the fact that every conversation that you have can really make a difference.”

Steen and other diocesan leaders found these techniques so intriguing that they built a two-day workshop around them in the fall of 2011. The workshop, attended by more than 100 people, drew rave reviews, Steen says, and on the heels of that success, the diocese invited Cam Tripp, a former vice president at Fierce, Inc., to give a workshop and the keynote address at the diocesan convention last November.

Tripp is a master of memorable analogies. He likens a leader who chooses to stew over rather than confront a troublesome situation to a homeowner who expects his garden to approve by resenting the weeds. In his presentations at diocesan convention, he outlined the four objectives of a “fierce conversation.” They are: to “interrogate reality,” provoke learning, tackle tough challenges and enrich relationships.

Easier said then done when long-entrenched behaviors are the source of the problem and careers may be at stake, and so the four objectives beget seven principles. To have a fierce conversation, Tripp says, you must:

  1. Master the courage to interrogate reality
  2. “Come out form behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.”
  3. Be present in the conversation, “prepared to be nowhere else.”
  4. Tackle your toughest challenge today.
  5. Obey your instincts
  6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake—whether the conversation leaves an “afterglow” or an “aftermath.”
  7. “Let silence do the heavy lifting.”

Lest these objectives and principles seem more too winsome and epigrammatic to lean on if the fierce conversation turns into a ferocious conversation, Tripp offers a step-by-step guide on how to raise and resolve difficult issues. Some of the essential steps include:

  • Writing a clear statement of the decision to be made, the strategy to be outlined the opportunity to be evaluated or the problem to be solved.
  • Inviting the people who will be affected and or who have perspectives you need to hear and sending them material that should be reviewed beforehand.
  • Giving everyone a copy of the “clear statement” referenced in step one to quickly focus attention and resources on the topic.
  • Telling your team members that you want to hear their perspectives, especially if their perspectives differ from your understanding of the facts, or your inclinations regarding next steps.
  • Asking everyone to write down what they would do if they were in your shoes.
  • Making sure that you hear from everyone.
  • Telling people the nature of the issue you will be deciding and when you will be deciding it.
  • Getting back to people with results and next steps

Fierce, Inc., trainers like Tripp teach the maxim that “the conversation is the relationship,” and that “Our careers, companies, relationships and lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time.”

Steen agrees. He says when parishes and the diocese stopped avoiding “the elephant in the room” to avoid unpleasant conversations, creative energy is unleashed. “I’ve actually seen vestries that have started doing this breath a huge sigh of relief,” he says.

In a little more than a year, he adds, the Fierce approach has begun to reshape diocesan culture. “One of the most significant ways is that when we on bishop’s staff go out into congregations, we have these sort of conversations. We are honest and we encourage others to be honest,” he says. Fierce precepts are also being discussed in diocesan programs such as Thrive, the new congregational development initiative; Fresh Start, and the Making Excellent Disciples program for new clergy.

“It is hard to have a conversation in this building,” Steen said referring to the diocesan offices, “without someone asking ‘what would we be focusing on now if we were having a fierce conversation?’”

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