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Data-Informed ‘Courageous Conversations’ Help Change Policies, Transform Culture

Institutional Culture

Data-Informed ‘Courageous Conversations’ Help Change Policies, Transform Culture

Three years ago St. Clair County Community College began its participation in Achieving the Dream, a national initiative to help low-income students and students of color stay in school and earn a college certificate or degree. During the kickoff event, one directive was clear—go back to your institution and have “courageous conversations” to improve student success.

Business and education leaders have used “courageous conversations” over the past decade to describe discussions in which participants can talk about difficult but significant topics openly and without fear. The term shows up in several books’ titles, including Life at the Frontier: Leadership through Courageous Conversation (2004) and Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools (2005).

The Achieving the Dream foundation does not provide a model for these courageous conversations but advocates using an evidence-based approach to resolving issues affecting college access and success. The recommendation to use an evidence-based approach resonated with St. Clair’s Achieving the Dream team, particularly as the college had recently formalized its institutional research function.

Linda Davis, dean of instructional support services at the college, and other members of the college’s Achieving the Dream team came together to devise ways to conduct these conversations. One of the challenges of having these conversations is getting buy-in. “We had cycles where data would be published, it would be released, and people would be skeptical and ask, ‘Where did [the data] come from?’ because we didn’t have good data processes in place and it might have conflicted with another dataset. So we had some ghosts to overcome. … We wanted to be able to have courageous conversations in a very organized and effective manner—not just ‘Let’s talk about it’—because if we brought everybody into the room and talked about it, we wouldn’t gain much because there would still be a lot of skepticism,” Davis says.

Davis and her colleagues decided to hold courageous conversations around “very small but critical points of data” using two models: a facilitated approach and an open-house approach.

The facilitated model

The facilitated courageous conversations are 30-minute meetings featuring brief presentations that consist of three or four slides that illustrate specific data points. The purpose of these meetings is to share data, get feedback, and make decisions.

The first courageous conversation focused on data on developmental education. The slides defined the student population in the dataset, in this case first-time students seeking a degree or certificate who placed in developmental math. This data raised questions such as, Who attempted the course? Why didn’t some students who placed attempt the course? and Why didn’t some students who attempted the course actually succeed?

In the facilitated model, one person leads the conversation, another responds to questions, and another takes notes. The narrow focus is deliberate. “We wanted to make sure that [participants] were going to understand what the data were telling them and then to be able to answer the questions,” Davis says.

In addition to the presentation, there are flip charts around the room and surveys to provide opportunities for participants to provide feedback. “We try to collect their reaction and other questions about the data they might have,” Davis says.

Open-house model

The open-house model of courageous conversations—known as “courageous conversation express”—features a room filled with information about the topic at hand.

“[Participants] can walk into the room and interact with it however they are comfortable and provide us feedback. There are stations all around the wall on the different topic areas, and when they walk into the room they are met by one of the [Achieving the Dream] team members. And it almost becomes more of a one-on-one interaction,” Davis says.

This approach is applicable when participants know about the issue and don’t need a formal presentation to get background on the topic. It was used to start a conversation about the college’s late-registration policy, a topic that is well-known by the entire college community. “The idea in the facilitated model is that participants are collectively brainstorming. In this instance, they don’t really need to. They can read what the other people have written, and that might prompt them to think of a new thing, but it’s more of a common topic that they can contribute to without as much background information having to be spelled out. They typically come with the background information,” Davis says.

This model uses blocks of several hours to provide opportunities for as many participants as possible. The open-house conversations typically get 30 to 50 participants.

“I think a big part of our success comes from being well prepared. Even though it’s a small amount of information, when the team prepares the data packages, we vet them quite well. We try to anticipate questions that people newly exposed to the information might have, so that we can make sure it’s simple and direct,” Davis says.


Based on these courageous conversations, the college has made several policy changes. For example, the late-registration period was shortened so that students do not get too far behind in a class that is already in progress.

In addition to specific policy changes, these courageous conversations have helped change the culture. “It has increased awareness. That’s why we focused on a little bit at a time and kept [the conversation] very short and focused. We wanted to educate faculty and staff and get them comfortable with the data. We wanted them to understand that we need to use data; we need to ask data questions.

“[Use of data] is spilling into other environments. In other committee meetings, we’re hearing people who have participated in the courageous conversations ask things such as, ‘Do we have the data? What kind of data do we have to support that?’ And that has rarely been a question before. That’s been a huge positive side effect of the process,” Davis says.


Davis offers the following advice on conducting courageous conversations: 

  • Use this approach sparingly. The college holds just one courageous conversation per semester “so that when it comes up, people get the message that this is a critical topic. We don’t want to dilute that,” Davis says.
  • Encourage widespread participation. Davis and her colleagues promote the meeting on the college’s intranet. They also hold the meetings at odd times rather than on the hour or half hour. This seems to pique people’s curiosity.
  • Don’t come to these meetings thinking you have all the answers. Be honest and flexible in these conversations and realize that you, as the facilitator, do not have all the solutions to the topic at hand. “That’s a shift,” Davis says. “A lot of times when folks might come into these meetings they think the facilitators know where we’re headed, and a lot of times when we get into these we don’t know where we’re headed. That’s why we want them there. That’s why we want their input. We want to get their ideas on how we can move forward.”
  • Be sure to follow up. After the meeting, it’s important to report back to participants and let them know what tangible decisions come out of the conversation. People will lose interest in the process if nothing comes from the process and will be unlikely to participate in future conversations, Davis says.

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