‘The currency of real networking is not greed, but generosity.’ (Keith Ferrazzi)
One of the skills in Action Learning is to distinguish between a presenter who is wrestling with a question from one who has become completely stuck. In the former case, it’s often most useful simply to sit with the presenter in silence while the question does its work. In the latter, the facilitator may offer the presenter an option of ‘peer-consultancy’, if it might help break the mental deadlock. In order to do this well, however, and to ensure that ownership and agency remain with the presenter, the facilitator can follow a specific sequence of interventions and process steps:
A few words of caution. First, beware of introducing the peer-consultancy approach without checking in with the presenter first. If the presenter is deep in thought, such a shift in approach may feel premature of patronising, as if inferring that they’re unable to work out a solution for themselves. Second, beware of any formal or informal (e.g. age, gender, race) hierarchical dynamics in a group. Presenters may feel that they ought to respond to all insights out of respect for those who shared them, or obliged to agree with ideas proposed by someone they regard as an authority figure.
‘The question is to provoke fresh thought, not to elicit an answer.’ (Stephen Guy)
I thought that was a great way of framing it. At an Action Learning Facilitators’ Training event with the NHS this week, we were looking at open coaching-type questions in the exploration phase of an Action Learning round and how they differ from, say, simple questions for clarification. A great question for exploration often stops a presenter in their thinking tracks. We may notice them fall silent; gaze upwards as if on search mode; get stuck for words; speak tentatively or more…slowly.
That’s very different to a presenter who answers quickly, fluently or easily – as if telling us something they already know or have already thought through for themselves. In a different Action Learning set recently, one presenter did just that. They were speaking as an expert, not as a learner, so I invited them to count to 10 silently before responding to any question posed – and invited the rest of the group to count to 10 silently too, after the presenter had spoken, before offering a next question.
The idea here was to allow the questions to sink deep. Thomas Aquinas, a philosopher and theologian, commented (my paraphrase) that a great question sets us off on a journey of discovery. Brian Watts observed, similarly, that the word question itself has the word quest embedded in it. Sonja Antell invites a presenter simply – but not always easily – to ‘sit with the question’, to reflect in silence and allow the question to do its work. It’s often the place where transformation occurs.
‘Action Learning aims to shake you out of the cage of your current thinking.’ (Pedler & Boutall)
Action Learning: a method by which someone receives stretching, coaching-type questions from a small group of peers. The aim is to resolve a pressing challenge, a real-life/work issue that has left the person perplexed or stuck. The idea is to leave with actions, practical steps that will help to move things forward. Yet what gets a person stuck in the first place?
If it’s a complex challenge, such as that of navigating the intricacies of diverse human relationships, we may become inadvertently caged by our own assumptions. Gareth Morgan commented that ‘people have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’ If we don’t know what assumptions we’re making, everything may seem self-evident to us.
This is where Action Learning and coaching really can help. If we can engender a spirit of curiosity within ourselves and invite challenging questions from different others, we may discover a door emerging in our previously-unseen cage, experience the agency to push it wide open and step outside to embrace fresh possibilities. It could just change...everything.
‘Open-ended questions can help clients reflect and generate knowledge of which they may have previously been unaware.’ (Jeremy Sutton)
You may have noticed when you order or buy something that, before asking you for payment, the salesperson may ask, ‘Anything else?’ It’s a simple prompt that, when posed, may cause you to remember something, or to make a choice vis a vis something over which you had been wavering.
This same approach can be useful in coaching. A coach could ask during the contracting stage: ‘Is there anything else we should be talking about?’ It can sometimes reveal a very significant issue that, until invited, feels unclear to the client, lays out of conscious awareness or has not yet been aired.
In action learning, similarly when a facilitator invites a presenter to say something more about the issue they would like to think through, insights that come to mind or actions they plan to take, they can ask, ‘Anything else?’ A presenter, when prompted, will often respond with: ‘Oh yes, and…X’
So, now for a brief moment of reflection. What ideas come to mind for you now as you read this blog? Jot down those that surface immediately… then pause for a moment before moving on to something else in your busy schedule. Ask yourself: ‘Anything else?’ and see what may emerge.
‘Behind every problem, there is a question trying to ask itself. Behind every question, there is an answer trying to reveal itself.’ (Michael Beckwith)
Second-guessing. It creates all sorts of risks. ‘What time does Paul’s meeting finish?’ Is that a simple request for information, or is there a question behind the question? ‘I’d like to meet with Paul this afternoon. What time will he be free?’ That’s better. ‘I need you to present an urgent strategy update to the Board.’ Again, is that a simple instruction, or is there an issue that lays behind it? ‘I’d like to demonstrate to the Board next week that our investments are achieving the desired results.’ Better.
A problem with a question that fails to reveal the question, the issue, that lays behind the question is that it leaves the other party to fill in the gaps. In doing so, they are likely to draw on their own assumptions – which could be very different to your own – or sometimes their anxieties. ‘Is he complaining that Paul’s meeting is over-running?’ ‘Is she inferring there’s a problem with my work on strategy delivery that I hadn’t been aware of?’ Simply stating our intention can make all the difference.
'Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity.' (Roy T. Bennett)
Action Learning facilitators sometimes feel concerned about what might happen in a set (a small group of peer-coaches) and how they might handle it if it does. When we discuss these kind of troubleshooting scenarios in training, I often notice that facilitators feel a sense of personal responsibility to manage anything and everything that might happen. Apart from placing a lot of pressure on the facilitator which could, in the moment, inhibit psychologically their ability to handle any challenges that may arise anyway, it also misses the self-resourcing potential of a group.
The key often lays in shifting the facilitator’s stance from control to curiosity. This doesn’t mean abandoning the governance role of the facilitator altogether, for example to ensure that agreed ground rules and process are followed appropriately. It does, however, mean approaching any challenges that emerge in an invitational tone. For instance, if the group is very quiet, or conversely very talkative, and this leaves the presenter perhaps with little stimulus or space for reflection, the facilitator can offer this as a judgement-free observation, like holding up a mirror to the set.
‘I’m noticing the group seems very quiet. I’m wondering what that might mean?’ Or, ‘I’m wondering what we might need?’ It could be that participants don’t know and trust each other well enough yet. It could be that they don’t believe they have understood the presenter’s challenge and feel nervous to admit it. It could be that they feel insecure about posing a ‘wrong’ question in front of peers. It could be they have an introverted preference and simply need time to reflect before framing a question. A spirit of curiosity can open things up, release stuck-ness and move things forward.
‘Wait time is making space for authentic learning.’ (Takayoshi & Van Ittersum)
A key skill in Action Learning is an ability to wait. It calls for patience and a positive tolerance of periods of silence. Imagine the presenter who receives questions from peers yet answers them too quickly or too easily, without allowing the questions enough time to sink deep. Such responses can sound and feel like surface-level learning, where a presenter knows, or is reasonably easily able to work out, a solution without much need for consideration.
A metaphor that comes to mind is that of the UK innovator, Barnes Wallis who, during World War 2, designed a revolutionary bomb to break through dams. ‘The bomb would spin backwards across the surface of the water before reaching the dam. The spin would then drive the bomb down the wall of the dam before exploding at its base.’ It took time and patience from the moment it was released until the cracks began to show, but then… breakthrough.
This principle of allowing time for questions to sink deep often proves critical to a presenter faced with complex problems in achieving their own breakthroughs: those profound moments of insight and agency that transform everything. It calls for discipline from peers, to wait and hold silence for the presenter before posing a next question. For people who find silence difficult, this entails learning to sit comfortably with discomfort. It’s well worth the wait.
'The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.' (Georg Cantor)
I spent the past couple of weeks working with the public sector in the UK, providing Action Learning facilitator training for a team of managers and professional mentors. The purpose of the initiative is to equip the mentors to offer Action Learning sets to registered managers of care homes. Action Learning will enable those managers to navigate complex challenges they face, whilst building on the existing skills portfolio of the mentoring team itself.
One of the challenges for mentors can be to make a shift from offering information or advice to mentees, which is often core to a mentoring role, to offering open questions in an Action Learning style instead. One participant, Mark, offered a useful insight to peers in his training group, to help make this psychological and practical transition from guidance to questions: ‘If I think of a solution and frame it as a question, it’s likely to come across as a suggestion.’
I found this very interesting because it signals the implicit, subconscious influence that our thinking, as facilitators or peers, can have on what we do and on the impact it can have. This could include, for instance: our beliefs about our role; how we believe we could add value to resolving an issue; what we believe a presenter could or should do etc. – even if we don’t say it out loud. This calls us to prepare ourselves mindfully before we step into a round.
‘One fish asks another fish ‘How is the water?’ The two swim on for a bit and eventually the other fish replies, ‘What is water?’’ (David Foster Wallace)
The more I know, the less I understand. That’s the conclusion I came to after spending 5 years in a Christian faith community in London with 70% Nigerian people, 20% Ghanaian, 8% Mauritian and 2% from the UK. It’s a belief that’s been reinforced by 7 years closely alongside people from the Philippines and other countries in East and South East Asia.
Beyond surface-level cultural traits such as distinctive clothing and food, culture runs very deep, mostly well below the radar of conscious awareness. Like the values and beliefs that underpin it, culture often only becomes known, including to ourselves, when we encounter a person or situation that contradicts or clashes with it. It can take us by surprise.
I’ve made various cross-cultural blunders on route, ranging from an innocent hug in one context to posing questions in a group in another. On reflection, I’ve sometimes been astounded by my own naivety. Yet few opportunities for learning compare with a cross-cultural experience. It may feel like a bumpy ride on route yet the results can be transformational.
[See also: Cross-cultural coaching; Crossing cultures; Cross-cultural action learning]
‘If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.’ (Albert Einstein)
Action Learning is a powerful way to explore an issue, formulate a solution and enable personal agency to act and influence change. It can also be used effectively to enable a group with shared interests or concerns to work on and address an issue together. The first step in this latter approach often entails helping a group to formulate its own question or hypothesis at the outset, a bit like when conducting action research, to establish appropriate focus and boundaries.
As a facilitator, we can invite the group to reflect on criteria and wider considerations as it performs this initial task. Here are some examples: a. In relation to this issue, who are they key stakeholders in the system? b. Do we have the right people in the room to address this issue? c. Is it feasible to make useful progress on the issue in the time we have available? d. Are there any ethical, intersectional, reflexive or relational issues we should pay attention to in how we do this?
Sometimes, I notice that one or more participants may have an intuitive awareness, a feeling or a hunch that something is, say, anxiety-provoking, challenging or stuck in their system, yet they may struggle to articulate it. In that case, I may invite them to, for instance, draw a picture, tell a story or enact a stance to help surface whatever issues lay beneath for them. Then, we continue the process (above) to reach clarity and agreement, as a group, before we move forward.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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