Engaging in courageous conversations

by Various


Read the article online (Scroll down to the title)

This issue of Ideas into Action focuses on the importance of leaders engaging in courageous conversations, even when these are difficult and can make us feel uncomfortable.

It provides excellent reflective material for senior and middle leaders. It is also extremely readable, gives useful definitions, and is full of practical strategies and links to support materials.

The context for the article is Canadian, but there are many parallels for New Zealand leaders. It explores the "constructive problem talk" and "open to learning conversation" model referenced in our Best Evidence Synthesis on school leadership (2009).


The article begins with reminding us of the purpose of courageous conversations – here defined as, "open, authentic, truthful dialogue, in an atmosphere of trust and respect" - saying that they are the key to effective leadership for improvement.

It also points out that many leaders, if not most, find them difficult and uncomfortable. "We often avoid courageous conversations, even when we recognise that they are desperately needed". They may be needed to challenge and change well-established aspects of teacher culture. Used wisely and well they can help teachers make changes that will benefit students.

Another significant purpose for such conversations is inquiring into theories of action. This means that they are not used only to challenge behaviours but the beliefs that lie behind them. They provide a way for leaders to acknowledge and understand why colleagues act as they do, and why alternatives need to be considered.

Trust and evidence

Relational trust is fundamental to courageous conversations. Each individual involved must trust or have the confidence that others will play their part in the process of change and improvement. Robinson, Hohepa, and Lloyd (ibid.) also make this point.

Making change or improving the situation of a school or a classroom should be evidence-based, and the authors of the article refer to the importance of using a "ladder of inference" as well. That needs to be part of the conversation and prevents us drawing premature and often inaccurate conclusions as we aim to improve things for students. 

Ladder of inference

Reflective questions

  • With your senior leadership team and your middle leaders consider the reasons we avoid "courageous" or constructive conversations with colleagues (page 3 of the article).
  • Discuss with your leadership team what improvements you want to make around your school. Then consider the evidence that you need to make clear to the individuals involved that there is a problem that you all need to address to improve the outcomes for students. Develop a ‘ladder of inference’ with the teachers.
  • What beliefs are your teachers currently using to influence the actions they take? How can you and your school leaders address these beliefs with the teachers so that they understand why they act as they do? How will you help them to change those beliefs so that you can engage in their professional learning and establish a platform for continuous school improvement? 

Further information

Top tips for courageous conversations 

Video courtesy of National College of Teaching and Leadership, UK


Engaging in courageous conversations, in Ideas into Action for school and system leaders, Ontario Leadership Strategy, Bulletin 2, 2013. Ontario Ministry of Education.

Robinson, V. Hohepa, M. and Lloyd, C. (2009) School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. (BES). New Zealand Ministry of Education, Wellington.

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