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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

As I have many times prior, I learned something unique from my dad last week. He shared a term he had heard used on television: “nonversation, ” which led to a nice conversation and a bit of reminiscence.

From online sources, the term, nonversation, is described as follows: “A completely worthless conversation, wherein nothing is illuminated, explained, or elaborated upon. Typically occurs at parties, bars, or other events where meaningful conversation is nearly impossible” (

Merriam Webster notes similarly, from its Top Ten User-Submitted Words, Volume 5, “A conversation that seems meaningless or without logic (

Yet, that’s not how I thought about its potential definition.  It’s not how my dad did either.  What if nonversation could also have Definition #2: “A conversation that took place, but never officially did”?

That would seemingly apply more toward the struggles school leaders have in leadership, wouldn’t it?

Under the second definition, nonversation would be what we all speculate happens in smoke-filled caucus rooms, teachers’ lounges, and/or at coffee shops prior to the BIG votes at school board meetings.  It might even be what many of us do when we shut the doors to our offices.

Leaders with organizational acuity know how to detect and decipher nonversation, conversations “not” officially taking place in schools and in local communities. Further, our best leaders know that nonversation is also in many cases, more powerful through both its stealth and substance -- more dangerous as well, really packing a wallop.

This week’s question:  Should school leaders, themselves, use the power of bare-knuckled nonversation?

To avert a worst outcome in a complicated situation?

To unearth the weakest link in an imposing force?

To encourage liars to tell the truth, when honesty would serve them better?

To speak in another’s language, one who only understands something really “direct”?

To be authentic, when public record (and political correctness) dis-incentivizes this sort of behavior?

To explore the pavement beneath some bloviator’s posturing?

Or even, to find humor amidst idiocy, something school principals aren’t typically allowed in public?

Or conversely, is nonversation as a tool, forbidden in a de jure or at minimum, a de facto sense, in K-12 leadership?  Said differently, is the use of nonversation unfashionable for those trusted with the care and feeding of our nation’s school children.

One could argue that once we are anointed to serve as role models for children, the practice of sharing something that by definition, we’ll never admit to saying, would beacon “conduct unbecoming of public stewards, where principals would shed their principle?”

Others could argue that by putting themselves out there, principals who make judicious use of nonversation demonstrate, in actuality, the courage to step-up and do what needs to be done, slugging it out in a world where children need someone willing to throw down for them, fighting the fight the way it is brought to them.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would encourage all K-12 leaders to [content of what he would share in nonversation deleted] and can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at for conversations more prone to parsed words and political correctness.

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