It's About the Conversation

Increasingly the leadership literature is highlighting the importance of 'the conversation' as a key way in which organisations move forward and leaders lead. In many ways we could view schools as a whole series of short and long conversations. Our schools are dynamic, complex relational systems rather than mechanical 'things' that always work in ordered and logical ways. Various complex interdependencies exist that are hard to order and control and the outcomes from these various influences are not always predictable. In this context the way people talk with each other, the questions they explore and the stories they tell have a shaping role in the way the school community moves forward (or backwards). We talk with colleagues, with those we lead, with parents, with students in all sorts of ways in any given week. And we progress issues (or inhibit progress) by the way we lead and respond in these conversational moments.

The academic and practitioner literature is now highlighting this regularly and frequently…

  • "There is a strong emphasis on notions of dialogue and conversation in the academic literature on leadership.”1
  • "Conversation is the fundamental unit of change. If you change the conversation, then there’s every chance you’ll change everything that surrounds it.”2

So if both our planned and spontaneous conversations –either one to one or one to group - are so important what are the things we can do to ensure they move things forward, rather than inhibit progress, or indeed, take things backwards…?

Interestingly, the things that help these conversations are many of the things that make for good coaching conversations. Here are 5 tips for making every conversation count as a constructive, progress building interaction:

  • Be intentional
    get clear on what a good outcome from the conversation would be. Sometimes you can prepare for this ahead of time and sometimes it is negotiated at the beginning…"What would be a useful place to get to with this topic in the time we have available now?"

  • Stay focused on what’s wanted
    spend more time on what the preferred future is in relation to whatever topic is raised rather than focusing on the background and how it developed. It is surprising how many people are really clear about and willing to talk about what they don't want. Asking, "And what would you like to have happen in relation to this?" can quickly shift focus towards what's wanted – almost always a more constructive place to invest time and energy.

  • Listen well
    a fundamental leadership and influencing skill. Do lots of it.

  • Identify and leverage the available resources
    it can be easy to be overly influenced by what can be obvious barriers and difficulties. While not pretending these do not exist it is important to focus attention on what is or has worked so that any available resources can be identified and are deployed in progressing the topic. Identifying resources, any that might be relevant, can go a long way towards building confidence that movement is possible in even the most challenging situations.

  • Small steps
    are better than big ones. They are easier to do and more likely therefore to get done. They also change the landscape – taking some small actions creates momentum and changes things. Then additional small actions can be taken and so on until the desired outcome is achieved or until an even better one emerges.

  • How would you be acting differently, speaking differently if you were helping every conversation move things forward? What might be one small step you could take this month towards that?


    • 1M Cavanagh (In press). The Coaching Engagement in the 21st Century: New Paradigms for Complex Times. In Clutterbuck D., Megginson D. and David, S (eds) Beyond Goals: Effective Strategies for Coaching and Mentoring, London: Gower Publishing.
    • 2P. Jackson & J. Waldman (2011) Positively Speaking: The Art of Constructive Conversation with a Solutions Focus. St Albans, UK: The Solutions Focus.