‘If the world is complex, then acting congruently with that complexity can be simpler than trying to control a machine that does not exist.’ (Jean Boulton)
At the start of an Action Learning set meeting, I invited the presenter (that is, the person thinking through an issue with support from peers) to say a bit more about the issue she is facing. As she did so, it sounded like the issue was complex and multi-faceted, with lots of inter-related dimensions. I asked if she had a sense of which dimension she’s find most useful to think through with the group. She responded, ‘Yes, A’. Then she went on to introduce further dimensions, B and C.
Curious, I asked whether she’d prefer to work on A, B or C. ‘C’, she replied, then elaborated to include D, E and F. Another participant asked which of those additional dimensions, or of the original A, B or C, could form a useful focus for her, on which to receive questions for critical reflection. ‘Let’s focus on B’ she replied. A peer reflected back to the presenter, insightfully, ‘Perhaps a struggle to find a way in, to get clarity on which dimension to address to move things forward, is the issue?’
It was a great example and application of double-loop learning, of stepping back from the immediate presenting issues to notice a potential meta-problem that could lay at the heart of the dilemma. As the Action Learning round progressed, it became apparent that the dynamic complexity of the presenter’s organisational context had left her feeling completely bewildered and lacking in agency. Her attempts to address each issue independently of the others had felt like whack-a-mole.
Noticing how it felt like whack-a-mole in the Action Learning set too gave a glimpse into a parallel process. ‘Is there something in what we’re experiencing here, that could give insight into and help make sense of what you are experiencing in your scenario?’ I invited each person to share, ‘If I were in the presenter’s situation, a question I might have in mind is…’ Different parts of the system emerged implicitly and vicariously into view. The action step flowed naturally from that place.
‘What is most important about any event is not what happens, but what it means.’ (Lee Bolman & Terrence Deal)
Here’s one way to think about human change and transition: change is what happens around us and transition is what happens within us. Imagine, for instance, a change at work – ‘We used to do X and now we’re going to do Y instead.‘ Simple, right? It can be, yes…except when it isn’t. It all depends, at heart, on what that change will mean to a person, team or organisation, and-or what it could mean for others that matter to them too; e.g. colleagues, family, friends, people who use their services.
It can get more complicated still. The same change could mean different things for different people and groups. It could also mean different things for the same person or group e.g. at different times, depending on what else is going on for them. In practice, this means that to support people through transitions, change leaders do well (a) to avoid making assumptions about what a change will mean and (b) to explore, ‘What will this change mean for you?’; then, given that, ‘What will you need?’
I can almost hear some leaders crying out in protest, ‘Don’t be naïve, Nick. Be realistic. People don’t like change. They’re resistant to change.’ Yet, here’s the thing. People will sometimes resist change, even though they agree with it, if they don’t feel heard or understood. Conversely and paradoxically, people will sometimes support change, even if they disagree with it, because they do feel heard and understood. Working with transitions isn’t an optional add-on. It can prove the key to success.
‘The smart ones ask when they don’t know. And, sometimes, when they do.’ (Malcolm Forbes)
We sometimes discover in new Action Learning sets that participants are unsure about the distinction between questions for clarification and questions for exploration. Participants may wonder, similarly, if and when closed and open questions should be used. This can lead to all kinds of awkward mental and linguistic gymnastics such as, for instance, wanting to ask a simple question for information, yet trying hard to frame it as an open question.
I find that one useful way to mark the difference between clarification and exploration questions is to consider, ‘Who is the answer to the question for?’ If I ask a question for clarification, the answer is for me, so that I will know or understand something better. If I ask a question for exploration, it’s offered as a gift that may, I hope, enable another person to gain insight and know or understand something more deeply or broadly for themselves.
We also sometimes discover that participants get a bit stuck when thinking about how to transition from questions for exploration to questions for action. They may wonder if, for instance, questions for action are questions for exploration that focus on action. I find a useful way to mark this shift is to think of questions for exploration as divergent (opening out) and questions for action as convergent (drawing together, to enable a close).
What we see here is that what makes a good question in Action Learning is determined less by rules about the structure of a question itself (e.g. whether it is an open or a closed question), and more by the focus and orientation of questions at each stage of the process. Participants pose questions in service of the presenter and, at the end of the day, it’s for the presenter to decide which land usefully for them or enable a shift towards a solution.
‘To venture involves risks, but with the potential for great gain.’ (Fook & Askeland)
A critical success factor in coaching and Action Learning is a willingness for participants to disclose opportunities or challenges they are facing, in order that they may learn through critical reflection and increase their sense of agency. At times, this may involve surfacing subconscious personal and cultural assumptions to enable self- and peer-examination. In doing so, we may draw on fields of learning and practice including Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s double and triple-loop learning.
The originator of Action Learning, Reg Revans, urged, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness’. Yet, although this can sound simple in principle, in some contexts it may run against norms and conventions of behaviour. In some cultures, for instance, to disclose a difficulty – especially in a group – could feel politically risky or even shameful. If a person were to share openly in that context, peers from the same cultural group could also feel anxious for that person and desire to protect them.
This safeguarding instinct may be amplified in health and social sector contexts where participants may be used to working with vulnerable people and groups and-or have lived experience of trauma. If their professional training has evolved from or been influenced by counselling or therapy, they may find posing high-challenge questions uncomfortable or threatening; especially if they associate asking searching questions with, for instance, investigations or judgements re. access to services.
In some cultures, to disclose personal rather than strictly situational challenges can be regarded as inappropriate and unprofessional.
In some cultures, rationality and objectivity may be regarded as having higher value than intuition, subjectivity or emotion. Participants may find themselves preoccupied with problem analysis and formulating definitive answers and solutions, rather than enabling a person to sit with ambiguity, uncertainty and tension. A vital role for a coach or facilitator is to build trust, curiosity and critical reflexivity; drawing on any filters, biases and experiences that emerge as tools for transformation.
‘The revolution will not be organised. Let the power go.’ (Bob Hunter, Greenpeace)
‘No offence intended, Nick, but we don’t want to be here. We were sent. We didn’t choose this.’ This has been the opening salvo from two different training groups I’ve worked with. The first was a group of leaders at an Action Learning facilitators’ training event in England; the second a group of managers at a similar workshop in Wales. In both cases, I loved their open and stark honesty. What a fantastic place to work from, and so much more energising than dancing around issues whilst paying lip service to engagement. It blew away empty superficiality and platitudes from the outset and provided a great opportunity to do something important and real.
In the first case, I thanked them for their honesty and reflected back what I had heard of how they were feeling. I then explained that developing a sense of personal agency lays at the heart of Action Learning – how to expand a person’s scope of choice, influence and change. In a spirit of curiosity, I asked if their pushback was in response to their felt lack-of-choice, and-or to the facilitator training per se, or to something else? They looked thoughtful, then said, ‘The lack of choice’. I responded, ‘So, here-and-now, you do have a choice. If you were to do something really useful today, what would you choose to do?’ ‘OK - let’s do the Action Learning training.’
In the second, I responded similarly. The workshop was being held in North Wales and participants protested that they resented having to speak in English so that I, a non-Welsh speaker, could understand. I acknowledged that it could well feel strange to speak in English if they normally speak with one-another in Welsh. Then I offered the group two options – their choice. We could conduct the skills practice in English, in which case I would be able to offer input and feedback that they may find useful. Or, we could conduct it in Welsh, in which case they could feel more comfortable, but I could contribute less. What would they choose? ‘OK - let’s do it in English.’
How to work with resistance? The revolution will not be organised. Let the power go.
‘If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you can use the plane the next day, that’s an outstanding landing.’ (Chuck Yeager)
‘I think I just crashed the plane!’ That made me laugh. We had been toying with the metaphor of flying an aircraft to think about different stages of a coaching or action learning process. My nephew, a trainee pilot, had explained to me previously how landing a plane after a flight can be the tricky part. There’s a risk that, having touched down, the plane bounces off the runway and takes off again, resulting in something like a kangaroo-effect along the runway until it finally comes to a halt.
During an action learning facilitation training workshop this week, a participant guided the group successfully ‘down’ into the action stage, only inadvertently to have it take off again as she opened up to further questions for exploration. In the learning review afterwards, one of her fellow participants commented with a smile that it felt, perhaps, more like a turbulent landing than a crash into the runway. That was a relief. Yet, how to land a plane without the bumpy-bounce effect?
Tony Stoltzfus in Coaching Questions (2008) offers a useful guide that focuses on three successive stages to help create a shift, from possibilities to decisions to committed actions: Could do; Want to; Will do. Could-do raises possibilities and options into the frame. Want-to touches on energy and motivation. Will-do moves towards determination and traction. We could picture this sequence as something like: What could you do? Is that a step you want to take? What will you do, by when?
Stoltzfus goes on to highlight potential issues to look out for and to attend to, including ‘insurance’ and ‘equivocation’. The former involves helping a person to identify and address critical factors that could either ensure or undermine their success. The latter can be useful if a person appears to be feeling ambivalent or only superficially committed to a course of action. It’s the person’s own choice as to whether they follow-through. This is, however, about helping them to land themselves well.
Examples of insurance-type questions are: ‘Are there any obstacles to getting this done?’ ‘Who else do you need to check with?’ ‘On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you’ll complete this step by the deadline?’ ‘What would it take to raise that to a 7, 8 or 9?’ ‘How could you change the step or the deadline to make this more realistic?’ ‘What could you do to increase your chances of getting this done successfully?’ ‘Do you need an accountability person or mechanism to help you do this?’
Examples of equivocation-type questions are: ‘Are you ready to commit to that next step?’ ‘You said you might take that next step. Is there anything holding you back?’ You said you ought to do this. What would make it something you’ll do because you really want to do it?’ ‘You sound like you're procrastinating. You can choose to do this or not to do it. What will you do?’ ‘Is there anything we need to discuss or change about the step you’re considering that would help you to make a more decisive choice?’
Stoltzfus ends by offering some tips on tentative language to listen out for at the action phase that could indicate a person is equivocating, or hasn’t yet reached a decision point: ‘I could…’ ‘I might…’ ‘I’m thinking of…’ ‘One possibility…’ ‘Maybe I should…’ ‘I ought to…’ ‘I’d like to…’ ‘Someday…’ It’s analogous to hovering above the runway without yet having achieved touch-down. Try: ‘How do you feel, here and now, as you consider each option?’ ‘If you were to land this, what would you need?’
[See also: A good ending; Get a grip; Grit]
‘Revolution starts in the mind. Question everything.’ (Bryant McGill)
If – a tiny word, one of the shortest in the English language – framed as a question, can open up a whole array of possibilities. It can raise insights and ideas into awareness by presenting a hypothesis that stretches the imagination and creates the potential for breakthrough. Used in coaching, consultancy and action learning, it can help shift a conversation beyond the what-is to the what-could-be; from a place of stuck-ness towards radical and liberating solutions.
Posed in invitational, coactive tone: ‘If we were to have a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ ‘If we were to introduce this change, what would it mean for you?’ ‘If we were to move ahead with this, what would you need?’ ‘If you were to do this with confidence, what would you be doing?’ ‘If you were to be successful in this venture, what would that make possible?’ ‘If you had a good-enough answer to this question, what would it be?’
If you were to draw more on the power of ‘if’, what difference could that make?
‘When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s a meteorite hurtling to the earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteor.’ (Despair.com Demotivators)
I was surprised to return to my desk and find 6 people waiting in a queue to complain. I’d worked hard on my all-staff presentation and thought I’d handled it well. My task had been to present the results of an annual staff survey: the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d attempted to present a view that, even in those areas where scores were low, such scores represented implicit positive hopes and aspirations. If, for instance, someone had given a low score for quality of management, it was because good management matters to them, even if their desires and expectations were unmet.
My agitated colleagues saw it differently. They felt as if I had spun the results, put a positive spin on the ugly, with a result that those staff who had already been angry, frustrated and disappointed now felt even more strongly that their voices were ignored, dismissed and unheard. Still taken aback, I tried to defend myself, arguing that it wasn’t spin but a matter of perspective. They weren’t having it, and they pushed back even harder than before. I was left reeling and confused. In my mind, I had presented the survey results with integrity. I couldn’t understand their hurt and angry responses.
This was some years ago and I remember vividly, some days later, driving into work when a penny dropped suddenly. It occurred to me that, when a person describes a glass as half-empty, it’s not simply a matter of perspective but one of sentiment and emotional experience too. By presenting a glass as half-full, I had inadvertently failed to acknowledge and represent an authentic expression of how they were feeling. I returned to my colleagues and shared this somewhat embarrassingly-belated self-revelation – with which they wholeheartedly agreed. They accepted my apology with grace.
'Silence is argument carried on by other means.' (Che Guevara)
The silence of a silent retreat has always appealed to me. Spending time in solitude, alone with God and away from all distractions. What’s not to like? Breathe. Detox. Relax. This week, an unexpected opportunity emerged in my diary so I decided to give it a try – 5 days of uninterrupted…silence. I booked a room, aptly named the ‘Hideaway’, at a Christian retreat centre, deep in the North East of England countryside.
The first thing that struck me was the warmth and kindness of the Manager, Mark, and the Assistant Manager, Helen. They gave me lifts to and from a nearby train station and left a welcome card in my room. It had a hand-written note; assurance of their prayers for me throughout my stay. I used the card to create a makeshift paper cross, having forgotten my own wooden one in a rush to pack my travel bag.
Armed with inspirational books and reflective meditations, I stepped into the…silence. I especially wanted to spend time not-thinking, with a desire simply to listen to God. Yet it turned out that that time alone with myself was the hardest part. Noise in my head with so many disjointed thoughts clamouring for attention, painful anxieties in my heart and chronic aches in my body, all shattered the peace and quiet.
Rather than resting peacefully in God, I often found myself wrestling, like Jacob, with God. I felt like I wanted, and needed, to fight. Sometimes, I cried with hurt, frustration and despair. At other times, I felt lifted out of myself, filled with calmness, clarity and light. As I was leaving, the cleaner, Jo, entered my room. 'I love my job', she said, 'making guests’ rooms clean and beautiful as a special place for an encounter with God.'
An encounter with God. It can feel like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan: ‘He isn’t safe, but he is good.’
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