Schools as Conversational Communities

For a few years now we have been using the line - ‘Enhancing the quality of conversations in education communities’ as a way to capture the essence of what we are about and it has been helpful to reconsider what this really means and why it is important. I am also aware that I have never really written about this so some explanation is in order.

We came to this phrase through an extended process of reflecting on schools and the kind of organisations that they are; through our work in Solutions Focus theory; through reading and studying concepts related to ‘complex adaptive systems’ and through a recognition that coaching and conversations that use a ‘coaching approach’ are at the heart of every school improvement initiative.

Some background…

For a long time there had been a tendency to view organisations, including schools, as objective ‘things’ that can be controlled, ordered and organised like a machine.(Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management school helped to perpetuate this way of thinking 100 years ago).

More recently complexity theorists (Stacey, 1999) have argued that organisations, including schools, are more accurately described as complex webs of human interactions. Lots of people talking with one another is central to this way of thinking about organisations. In fact, instead of leading a well-oiled machine, leading organisations is more like trying to navigate a kayak through the rapids where the landscape is constantly changing, things are unpredictable and the ability to adapt, modify and respond to the environment are keys to success.

Further study and thinking about all this highlighted the fact that conversations – the way people talk to each other, and how well they do this - is at the core of what moves things forward within organisations enabling them to grow, improve and be successful. We were discovering a strong statements about the role of the conversation in organisational effectiveness:

  • “Conversations are the way workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues and in the process create new knowledge for the organisation. In the new economy conversations are the most important form of work…so much so that the conversation is the organisation.”
    (Alan Weber, HR Consultant)
  • “An organisation’s results are determined through webs of human commitments, born in webs of human conversations.”
    (Fernando Flores, Former Chilean Finance Minister)
  • “Change the conversation and there is a good chance that you will change everything that surrounds it.”
    (Jackson & Waldman, The Solutions Focus)

Further, recent research (Groysberg & Slind, 2012; Amabile & Kramer, 2011; Dutton, 2003; Cross and Parker, 2004) has emphasised the conversation as central to leadership and organisational effectiveness. Let me highlight just a couple of these studies:

  • Jane Dutton, (2003) writes extensively about high quality connections. Dutton outlines a range of specific strategies that leaders can adopt to create energetic workplaces through what she terms ‘high quality connections’. Three key things constitute these ‘high quality connections’: respectful engagement, task enabling and trusting.
    Respectful engagement- is about how to engage others in ways that send messages of value and worth. Dutton outlines 5 major strategies for doing this - being present, being genuine, communicating affirmation, effective listening, supportive communication.
    Task enabling- is about ways of interacting that facilitate another person’s successful performance. Here she recommends, teaching, designing, accommodating and nurturing
    Trusting – is about acting in ways that convey to others the belief that they will act with integrity, dependability. Trust is built through what you say and don’t say and what you do and don’t do.
  • Cross and Parker (2004) researched organisational networks and identified ‘positive energisers’ in organisations. As the term suggests these were the people to whom others were drawn, who were energising to be around and people who made things happen. What characterised their interactions were conversations that:
    • Linked to a compelling vision
    • Allowed both parties to meaningfully contribute
    • Gave full attention and engagement
    • Focused on progress
    • Conveyed a sense of hope

The common themes emerging in this research started to weave together and give a strong focus to the nature of the connections, the relationships and the conversations and their impact on various aspects of organisational effectiveness. What became increasingly obvious was that the characteristics of the conversations that were making a difference bore a striking similarity to the various dimensions we were emphasising in the coaching conversations we were leading, writing about and helping others learn to do. The emphasis on what these conversations did reinforced what we were doing and teaching about coaching:

  • They focused more on future
  • They focused more on outcomes,
  • They progressed issues through small step actions,
  • They leveraged strengths

Further, how these conversations were conducted was very much in line with GCI’s Coaching Way of Being principles. They emphasised:

  • focused attention
  • a partnership approach
  • building trust
  • listening

It became clear then that a focus on enhancing the quality of conversations in schools, whether formal coaching or informal ‘coaching like’ conversations could help to make a positive impact. Indeed, these kinds of conversations were really at the centre of any kind of school improvement initiative. The implementation of any new change happens through the way people engage in conversations with each other. Moreover we realised that ‘coaching like’ conversations could take place in several key conversational contexts in schools:

  • Leaders with team members
  • Teachers with teachers;
  • Teachers with students
  • Students with students
  • School leaders and teachers with parents and community

It was this thinking that led to the development of the Global Framework for Coaching in Education (van Nieuwerburgh & Campbell, 2015).

So we believe that working towards improving the quality of conversations in school communities - in all these contexts - is important work. And, of course, it’s important to remember that we do all this so that above all – students’ learning and wellbeing is enhanced.

We believe that coaching and ‘coaching style’ conversations provide a vehicle to achieve this.


  • Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Cross, R. L., & Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations (10th ed.). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize your workplace: How to create and sustain high-quality connections at work. San Francisco,CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Talk, Inc.: How trusted leaders use conversation to power their organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press
  • Stacey, R. D. (1999). Strategic management and organisational dynamics: The challenge of complexity (3rd ed.). Harlow, England: Financial Times Prentice Hall
  • Van Nieuwerburgh, C. & Campbell, J. (2015). A global framework for coaching in education. In CoachED: The Journal of Teaching Leaders. (1), 2-5.