Why schools are in trouble when the most honest conversations occur in parking lots

Dennis Sparks

Parking lot conversations usually mean that people are not saying what they really think in meetings, which means the school community is deprived of their perspectives and experience.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that important problems remain unsolved and the school community is deprived of an important source of professional learning.

Parking lot meetings usually mean that there is a low level of trust in the school community.

Parking lot conversations also undermine trust.

What can be done to address this problem?

1. Name the elephant in the room. Begin a crucial conversation about this important subject, a conversation that will likely be the first of many. Ignoring or minimizing the problem only feeds the elephant.

2. Establish meeting agreements in which participants agree to have important conversations within meeting rooms. The agreement also specifies what will be done if it is violated.

3. Use protocols to engage everyone in the conversation to ensure productive meetings.

4. Include professional learning as an agenda item in most meetings, if even for a few minutes. Ideally, such professional learning will be closely linked to the meeting’s primary purposes.

What processes do you use or have you experienced to address the problem of parking lot meetings?

9 Responses to “Why schools are in trouble when the most honest conversations occur in parking lots”


  1. 1 martininkorea October 15, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Reblogged this on So, You Think You Can Teach ESL? and commented:
    The truth comes out in the most unlikely places.

  2. 2 principalsintraining October 15, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Tremendous thoughts here, Dennis (as always!). Our staff has looked at the work of Robert Kegan – the Language of Public Agreements – to consider our norms as opportunities to surface “violations” as a means of generating more trust and openness – without agreements there can be no violations, therefore no learning as a group. We’ve discussed how we all need to experience safety (getting back to Maslow!) & that through the collective commitment to these agreements we can foster a climate where disagreement is not seen as dangerous but rather as an opportunity to forge better relationships and more dynamic solutions. One approach I take is to seek people out personally as well and listen to their concerns and solicit their feedback on our meetings – How can we improve the experience? How are we doing in creating more honest conversations? Thank you.

  3. 3 Dennis Sparks October 16, 2014 at 9:02 am

    You make an extremely important point–when we make agreements to improve performance, violations of the agreements are inevitable. If not, there would be no need for the agreements. Therefore, it’s essential that participants understand the inevitability of those “violations” and establish additional agreements about how they will be handled in respectful and straightforward ways.


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