This month, Jo Finch talks about having courageous conversations and conversations that make a difference.

"Courageous conversations" was a term I came across when reading Beddoe and Davys' (2016) brilliant book on supervision. There was something about this turn of phrase that really resonated with me and captured very simply, something complex that I had been trying to express for a while. A courageous conversation therefore may have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Conversations associated with some sort of emotion
  • Conversations where the participants may feel ashamed, apprehensive, uncomfortable, angry and embarrassed
  • Conversations that might be conflicted by introducing different ideas, values or behaviours
  • Conversations that may cause conflict and hurt
  • Conversations that may have a significant impact on relationships

(adapted from Beddoe and Davys, 2016:1930)

As social workers, we have courageous conversations all day long, not only with service users but colleagues, managers and other professionals. Practice educators also need to have courageous conversations with students, particularly when issues emerge on placement. Such conversations therefore, in both our personal and professional lives are often understandably avoided, not least because we don't want to hurt or offend the other person. There may be other barriers to having such conversations, such as not wanting to damage the relationship with the person, or indeed, being fearful of the response. Courageous conversations therefore can be difficult conversations, which as a non-social work text aptly commented, can cause a "knot in the pit of your stomach" (Harvard Business Review, 2016:3).

Barriers to having courageous conversations, particularly with students who are struggling to meet the required standards in practice, sometimes can centre on, for example, the value conflict in potentially having to fail a student (Bogo et al, 2007) or perhaps not wanting to fail a student (Finch and Schaub, 2015); the internal struggle between balancing the educator-enabler aspect of the practice educator role with the assessor role (Finch and Taylor, 2013); a false hope that the issues will magically go away (Hoffman et al, 2005) or even a fear of subsequent litigation (Finch, 2017). There is a really important flip side of a courageous conversation, however, that whilst it may initially cause hurt or discomfort, it might well be the "lever" or the catalyst for positive change and development.

I recall one courageous conversation, not social work or practice education related, that had a significant impact on me, and whilst at the immediate time, it rankled, it made a long-lasting difference. Almost 16 years ago, I was a first-time mother and was struggling to manage the anxiety of looking after a tiny human being, who couldn't tell me what was wrong, or if they were ill and if so, where it hurt. I didn't feel I had enough experience or indeed confidence to work out the difference between a minor ailment and something more serious. One day, my son appeared poorly, so I took him to the GP on a Friday, but I did not feel particularly reassured by his advice, that my son was suffering from a very minor ailment and no medicine was required. The weekend followed with a miserable and crying baby and on the Monday, I attended the GP surgery again, in a sleep deprived, tearful and highly anxious state. The GP informed me* no antibiotics were required, again just a minor illness and I sensed his irritation at my repeat visit. I then embarrassed myself by blubbing in his office and rather crossly, he informed me, that if babies have enough energy to cry, then generally, they are not that seriously ill. He advised further that if babies were listless and floppy and not drinking, then it was time to get worried. I went away feeling like I had been told off, and rather indignant, after all, I had worked with parents in the past, who often didn't seek medical help for their children, and here I was, being a responsible mother, blah blah blah.

The message however must have sunk in and I gradually become more confident at knowing when a GP visit was required for my son and indeed, when a visit to A&E was required (like the time my son ate a whole box of orange flavoured worming tablets and had an allergic reaction – yes I know, the medicine should have been locked away, no I didn't realise he could use the drawer handles like a ladder to climb up, open cupboard and eat said tablets). So back to the story, my anxiety ebbed away and I began to have more faith in my parenting abilities. I then found myself one day passing that same advice onto a friend and very recently to my niece. One could argue that the doctor was not being particularly "courageous" in his approach but given my tearful state, he could have avoided a conversation that may have provoked more tears from me or he could have just handed me a prescription for antibiotics that were not needed by my son, just to appease my anxiety and get this crying woman out of his office!

I only very recently told my GP about the difference his advice had made – beyond the initial presenting problem of diagnosing my son, and the positive impact it had had on my sense of worth and confidence as a new mother, how that confidence transferred itself when my second son was born and how I had passed on his advice. I noted he looked quite pleased.

Like it says on the tin, courage is needed to have such a conversation but if we don't, then we are at risk of not adhering to our values of honesty and transparency. If we return to the struggling student scenario, if a student doesn't know there are areas they need to make some development in, how will they develop and meet the necessary requirements? We can still be kind in our conversations and of course there is an obvious need to reflect how our anxieties about having to have as such conversations, may impact adversely on our manner of delivery.

So, I am keen to get a conversation about courageous conversations started with you all. Have you had or been at the receiving end of a courageous conversations that made a difference? Perhaps you know only too well the situations when you have avoided a much-needed courageous conversation? So, come on, don't be shy, I am keen to hear about those courageous conversations that have made a difference. Please do respond in the comment boxes below.

* Disclaimer: I am merely recounting my own experience. This is not medical advice. If you are worried about a child’s health, you should consult a doctor or other appropriate medical professional.


Beddoe, L, & Davys, A. (2016) Challenges in Professional Supervision, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London

Bogo, M., Regher, C., Power, R. And Regher, G. (2007) When Values Collide: Field Instructors Experiences of Providing Feedback and Evaluating Competence. The Clinical Supervisor, 26 (1/2), pp.99-117

Finch, J. and Taylor, I. (2013) The Emotional Experience of Assessing a Struggling or Failing Social Work Student in Practice Learning Settings, Special Edition – Field Education, Social Work Education, 32 (2) pp:244-258 DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2012.720250

Finch, J. & Schaub, J. (2015) Projective Identification as an Unconscious Defence: Social Work, Practice Education and the Fear of Failure. in Armstrong, D. & Rustin, M.(eds) Social Defences against Anxiety: Explorations in the Paradigm, Karnac, London

Finch, J. (2017) Supporting Struggling Students on Placement: A Practical Guide: Policy Press

Harvard Business Review (2016) Difficult Conversations (HBR 20 minute Manager Series), Boston, Harvard Business Review Press

About the author:

Dr Jo Finch was a speaker at our 2016 Conference; her presentation on difficult conversations is available to download here.

You can follow Jo on Twitter @jojofinchers

Jo is Reader in Social Work, Programme Director for the Professional Doctorate in Social Work and Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Work Research at the University of East London. She has research interests in widening participation, practice learning and assessment, practice-near research methodologies and social work and radicalisation. Jo has also been part of a research team that has undertaken evaluations of suicide prevention services in East Sussex. Her new book entitled Supporting struggling students on placement, a practical guide has recently been published by Policy Press.

Policy Press have set up a discount code for ScOPT members to get 30% off any of their books. You need to order at and enter the code POSCOPT at the checkout.

Next Month...

Liz Beddoe discusses harmful and inadequate supervision. Keep an eye on

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