A safe-enough space
Action learning and vulnerability
Wright, N. (2022), 'A Safe-Enough Space - Action Learning and Vulnerability', Coaching and Life, 22 January.
‘Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention and full engagement.’ (Brené Brown)
Action Learning: a type of small group peer-coaching. It can be a great opportunity to think through complex challenges and to generate innovative solutions. As a process, it focuses a group's attention on an individual facing an issue - then stimulates critical reflection, enabling new insights and ideas to emerge. The process involves positive risk-taking, both in terms of a willingness to present issues of genuine interest and concern and to invite and pose stretching questions that offer challenge with support.
In order to create a trust-environment in which participants feel willing and able to raise and address issues that are real and important to them without feeling pressured or exposed, Action Learning facilitators contract with a group at the outset. This means co-creating ground rules that ensure sufficient psychological safety for useful conversations to take place. In doing so, the facilitator typically draws the group’s attention to needs: e.g. ‘What do we need from each other, both to give our best and get the best from this?’
From time to time, an Action Learning set may include one or more members who feel especially vulnerable or who have experienced some kind of trauma. This may be clear and explicit at the outset, e.g. if working with groups of refugees or victims of domestic violence. At times, it may only become apparent after a person poses an issue or a question - then he, she or others in the group start to feel anxiety or distress. Here are some practical tips that can help facilitators to work with these dynamics and risks:
- Ensure all participants are clear in advance about what the Action Learning process will entail in practice.
- Be sensitive to potential power imbalances in the composition of a group, e.g. hierarchy, perceived social-cultural status, gender, race, ethnicity, age.
- Whether planning to meet at a physical location, or if participants will be joining from elsewhere (e.g. online or by phone), ask them beforehand what and when would make it feel safe for them.
- Consider bidding, selecting and communicating topics in advance so that participants can choose which Action Learning round(s) to take part in.
- The presenter can choose what to present, and not to present.
- The presenter can choose which questions to respond to, and not to respond to. If a presenter would prefer not to respond to a question, they can simply say, ‘Thank you for the question.’
- All participants have the option to withdraw from the conversation at any point, if they want or feel the need to, without needing to explain why.
- The group will retain strict confidentiality, and topics raised in the group will not be raised or discussed outside of the group.
- Review periodically with participants in terms of what is working well and what would improve future sessions for them.
- If a participant withdraws from a session, offer a follow-up conversation if that person would find it helpful, with the option not to follow-up if they would prefer.
- If a person has conveyed anxiety or distress during a session, check-in afterwards if they are OK and what they may need at future sessions, with the option not to discuss if they would prefer.
- If a person displays very high levels of anxiety or distress that appear unresolved on leaving the session, contact the relevant safeguarding authority (e.g. HR) immediately.
(See also: Trauma-informed Coaching)
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'Thank you, Nick. This is a very practical and reassuring piece.' (Alex Swarbrick)
'This is good advice and I love the flexibility it offers. So many have experienced being controlled by others.' (Sheila Jones)