‘To venture involves risks, but with the potential for great gain.’ (
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.
‘Collusion arises when the coach is only asking questions in a supportive fashion, being non-judgemental and listening, aligning with the other's worldview and failing to challenge or give feedback from a different perspective.' (John Blakey & Ian Day)
In those days, we called it non-managerial supervision. These days, we’d call it coaching. My job involved meeting monthly with individuals who had been long-term unemployed. They were on placement, now, in a diverse range of community-based projects throughout London. The idea was to help participants discover and create the necessary confidence, competence and credibility to get paid employment. Some were supported with college training. All had the opportunity to gain valuable real-work experience.
Sonja was a young black woman, a single parent on placement as a classroom assistant in a local community school. I loved her bright spirit and admired her remarkable resilience in the face of the many life challenges she faced. Every time we met, I would try to affirm and encourage her. I had been unemployed and I knew some of the psychological and emotional difficulties it could cause. My coaching focused on support, hoping it would help her to continue to persevere and, through that, to flourish in her future.
Six months into Sonja’s one-year placement, we reviewed our sessions together: what was working well and what would most improve them as we moved forward. To my great surprise, Sonja challenged me to be more challenging: ‘Most mornings, I arrive at the school late. When I tell you it’s because I’m a single parent and it takes longer than I expect to get my kids ready before work, you accept my reasons and empathise with me. Yet, if I’m to get a job, I need to learn to stop making excuses and to get a grip on my life.’
I felt speechless, and yet this turned out to be a critical turning point in my coaching practice. Ana Karakusevic expresses this well: ‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ I read resources, including William Glasser’s provocative Reality Therapy, and shifted the balance and orientation of my coaching to offer challenge from a base of support. It transformed everything.
Gestalt action learning
This is a thought experiment.
I choose these words deliberately, because a spirit of experimentation lays at the heart of Gestalt practice. It’s about learning by doing rather than, say, learning by thinking or learning by talking. That marks it out from conventional ways of coaching, facilitation and action learning (AL). It’s about trying something new, seeing what surfaces into awareness as we do so, then noticing any shift in our stance in relation to an issue we’re grappling with. It can be revealing, radical and powerful.
Picture this. During an AL bidding round, each person depicts physically the essence of an issue that they’d like to work on. This could be, say, by standing and posing or acting out a scenario; drawing or painting a picture for the group to see; sharing an object that, for them, carries particular resonance with the issue they’re facing; presenting a song, poem, or piece of prose that expresses the core of the issue and any feelings they hold around it. The group then moves onto choosing a presenter.
The choice of presenter could be influenced by, say, the felt sense of imminence or urgency in what a person has depicted; the degree of complexity that emerged as they sought to depict different dimensions; the scope for experimentation with actual changes in what that person portrayed. This would feel different to an ordinary rational evaluation of the relative merits of different bids and, instead, would call for courageous sharing of empathy, intuitions and gut-instinct discernment.
At the exploration stage, the peers in the set would pose questions and reflections physically, by doing something that invites reflection and response from the presenter. This could be, for instance, to stand with the presenter, mirror his or her pose and ask them what they notice; move with the person to physical places where they can view their picture from a range of different angles; invite the person to act out any metaphors they had used in a song or poem then to see what emerges.
Moving between exploration and action stages, the set would invite the presenter to try things imaginatively that could stretch the scenario and themselves in relation to it. This could involve, for instance, inviting the presenter to experiment with radically different poses to find one that best represents the stance they want to take; making drastic changes to the picture and noticing how that feels; reciting the song or poem using opposite metaphors to those they had used originally.
This challenge phase of the Gestalt process is sometimes described as co-creating a ‘safe emergency’ with the presenter. It allows him or her to experiment with and experience, say, moving between extremes, or to very different places (physically; psychologically; systemically; emotionally) to where they might naturally prefer or default to. It enables them to push their own boundaries; to speak what may ordinarily feel unspeakable for them, to do what may normally feel un-doable for them.
The final action stage would involve inviting the presenter to depict physically, say, their aspiration in relation to the issue they have presented; the physical stance that best represents that aspiration for them; any obstacles or enablers that they could envisage on route – using physical objects in the room (e.g. chairs) to represent them – then physically navigating through them; or physically to take what they choose as their next steps, adopting the posture or stance they will take as they do so.
What have been your experiences of using Gestalt in Action Learning? I’d love to hear from you!
[See also: Toys; Crab to dolphin; Let's get physical]
Power of love
‘It’s a question of what the relationship can bear.’ (Alison Bailie)
You may have heard the old adage, the received wisdom that says, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ It normally refers to avoiding taking on complex tasks until we have mastered simpler ones. Yet the same principle can apply in relationships too. Think of leadership, teamworking, coaching or an action learning set; any relationship or web of relationships where an optimal balance of support and challenge is needed to achieve an important goal.
Too much challenge, too early, and we can cause fracture and hurt. It takes time, patience and commitment to build understanding and trust. I like Stephen Covey’s insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’ It’s an invitation to humility, vulnerability and courage. It sometimes calls for us to take the first step, to offer our own humanity with all our insecurities and frailties first, as a gift we hope the other party will hold tenderly.
It's an invitation, too, for the receiver to respond with love. John, in the Bible, comments that, ‘Love takes away fear’. To love in the context of work isn’t something soft and sentimental as some cynics would have us believe. It’s an attitude and stance that reveals itself in tangible action. Reg Revans, founder of action learning, said, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ A hidden subtext could read, ‘Respond to my fragility with love, and I will trust you.’
I joined one organisation as a new leader. On day 3, one of my team members led an all-staff event and, afterwards, she approached me anxiously for feedback. I asked firstly and warmly, with a smile, ‘What would you find most useful at this point in our relationship – affirmation or critique?’ She laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, ‘To be honest, affirmation – I felt so nervous and hoped that, as my new boss, you would like how I had handled it!’
In this vein, psychologist John Bowlby emphasised the early need for and value of establishing a ‘secure base’: that is, key relationship(s) where a person feels loved and psychologically safe, and from which she or he can feel confident to explore in a spirit of curiosity, daring and freedom. It provides an existential foundation on which to build, and enables a person to invite and welcome stretching challenge without feeling defensive, threatened or bruised.
How do you demonstrate love at work? What does it look like in practice?
Attitude to risk
Does risk-taking freak you out or give you a buzz?
‘If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.’ (Geena Davis)
Snapping my leg sideways at the knee was a painful experience. It shattered my confidence too. I had been cycling when, unexpectedly, I hit a curb and flew off, unceremoniously, and hit the ground hard. The next year was a gruelling experience of trying to learn to walk again. The consultant told me, bleakly, that my biking days were over – as were my chances of ever hiking, swimming or climbing stairs again. I felt stunned, numbed, in shock. How could this have happened?
This changed when I met Leanne, a remarkable Olympic athletes’ physiotherapist. She asked if I’d like to cycle off road again. I told her what I had been told and had believed – that it wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, she persisted and posed the same question again. I felt frustrated and confused. I had already answered. She asked what I’d be afraid of happening if I were to cycle again. I responded that I risked sustaining further injury to my knee - and that really scared me.
This turned out to be a transformational conversation. ‘Every time you went out on a bike, you risked injury. Knowing what you know now, if you were to go back in time, would that stop you taking up cycling?’ ‘Not at all’, I answered. ‘Some of my best life experiences have been out on the mountain bike.’ ‘So,’ she replied, ‘It’s not about what’s possible so much as your attitude to risk. Will you allow that same risk of injury to prevent you doing what you love now?’
Six months later, I cycled the longest distance I had ever done off road. It was a breath-taking experience. I learned that risk isn’t just about balancing probability and impact. Positive risk-taking is about stance: taking what can feel like a leap of faith, being willing to crash and burn if it all goes wrong and, at the same time, to experience the possibility of discovering or achieving more than we had ever dreamed possible. When have you taken a positive risk? What did you learn?
‘Will not conform.’ (Christian Biker)
Misfit. Outsider. Square peg in a round hole. Rocks the boat. Shakes the tree. Breaks the mould. You may have worked with one. You may be one. There are different types of deviance; configured around, 'acceptance or rejection of cultural values and goals' on the one hand and, 'acceptance or rejection of conventional ways to achieve them' on the other (Robert Merton). This means that, if you consider me disruptive, it’s likely to be because I challenge what you want and/or do, and/or how you do it.
A deviant person can feel very uncomfortable to be around, unsettling as a colleague and difficult to manage. The answer to the question, ‘Is he or she a good fit?’ will be a resounding, ‘No’. A deviant person is a testing stone that reveals a contrasting norm; and he/she may galvanise a sense of shared identity and purpose among those who do fit: ‘We are X, not Y’. An oft-unquestioned assumption is that the defiant-dissident should change to fit in, and not that prevailing goals or culture should change.
Yet constructive divergence can be a critical catalyst for transformation: ‘I’m proud to be maladjusted’ (Martin Luther King); ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ (Eleanor Roosevelt). Performance enhancers look for positive deviants that display exceptional qualities, then seek to replicate them. Psychological coaches help people to learn from their positive deviant experiences: ‘when the problem isn’t a problem’ (Mark Tyrrell). Radical leaders invite positive deviance to innovate, to break through.
How deviant is your thinking and practice? How do you enable positive deviance in others?
‘You’re wrong, pal.’ (Simon)
It was a different way to end a coaching conversation. Many leaders and managers would dance and wriggle around it, trying to find a less direct way of signalling disagreement, if at all. At least in UK culture, that is. Simon was coaching a colleague and decided to dispense with the niceties. After all, why waste time and beat around the bush if the answer is obvious? As far as Simon was concerned, the bloke was talking a load of nonsense and that was it. Enough. ‘You’re wrong, pal.’
In fact, the issue his colleague was presenting could have had some fairly significant consequences for a group of vulnerable young people. Simon felt accountable. He saw it as his job to put the bloke straight. The difficulty was how to do this in a coaching conversation. How to present a forceful-enough challenge whilst yet, at the same time, to retain his colleague’s responsibility to own and resolve it himself. This was confronting-coaching on steroids. Simple. ‘You’re wrong, pal.’
So, here’s the thing. What do you do as a leader, manager or coach if a person’s beliefs, values, behaviours, intentions or actions clash fundamentally with your own? What if you foresee serious consequences that they don’t see, or that don’t matter to them? What if it only becomes apparent in the midst of a coaching conversation? Do you stay silent, pose a question, offer an opinion, snatch the reins from them, or do something else? Would you ever assert: ‘You’re wrong, pal’?
‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ (Ana Karakusevic)
I’m paid to be disruptive.
Isn’t that, after all, at the heart of what it is to be a good leader, coach, OD change agent or trainer? There’s something about an encounter with leadership, a true leader, that leaves us changed and transformed. The best OD people I’ve known have challenged, stretched and reframed much of what I thought I believed. The best trainers have impacted my ideas and practice. The best coaches have left me startled, dizzy, at times disorientated, and yet, somehow…renewed.
There is, however, a cost to all this. Don’t always expect a warm welcome and smiles in the room. An honest HR colleague commented to me once: ‘You pose questions and perspectives that can make us feel jarred, frustrated and, at times, even threatened. You turn everything upside down, inside out – and you are absolutely right to do so.’ And this is where contracting and trust prove critical. Without a genuine spirit of relationship and intention of support, we risk simply p***ing people off.
So, how far are you a disruptive influence? How well do you build trust through risk-taking with support?
Hide and seek
‘Come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real.’ (Susan Scott)
Hiding for fear of discovery is an archetypal characteristic of human beings. Think back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Think too to an ex-colleague of mine who, employed as a police officer, donned his uniform every day and – strange as it may sound – spent his time impersonating a police officer. John Powell reflected this phenomenon well in his classic book, ‘Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?’ It’s very often about fear of exposure, risk of rejection…imposter syndrome.
There are, of course, at times good reasons to hide. I think, for instance, of criminals on the other side of the law who attempted last night to evade the blinding glare of a police helicopter searchlight outside a friend’s house. It was a dramatic scene, accompanied by the throbbing and deep reverberation of chopper blades overhead. We could think of such hiding as a rational and practical act – at least in the sense that it relates to a realistic prospect of arrest and imprisonment if caught.
Yet we may find ourselves hiding for all kinds of other reasons too. Hiding often manifests itself in relationships and at work in subtle avoidance strategies. We may rationalise our hiding by telling ourselves that we can’t tackle a tricky person, a difficult issue, a daunting conversation, because we’re too busy, it’s not our job, they wouldn’t listen or it could make things even worse. In doing so, we may deprive ourselves and others of invaluable talent, trust, possibility – and hope.
Stepping out takes courage with humility, challenge with support. When have you stepped out from behind yourself and made it real? When have you enabled others to step out too?
‘You get what you tolerate.’ (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations)
We were sitting by a window on an icy winter day. I was working with Bryan Emden, my coach at the time and a skilled psychotherapist. Part-way through the conversation, I felt a cold shiver and asked Bryan if he would mind if we moved to a different table. He looked back at me with cool, penetrating gaze then spoke. ‘It has been cold here for some time. I wonder how uncomfortable things need to get for you before you take action…and whether that reflects a wider pattern in your life and work?’
I was a bit taken aback because I had always prided myself on a decisive-activist mantra, ‘(almost) any decision is better than no decision’. Nevertheless, on reflection I could remember certain hard situations in which I had not acted early enough. I had feared that to do so could have made things even worse. We could call this an avoidance strategy, a defence against anxiety based on a fear of negative consequences. In CBT terms, I had catastrophised, predicted the worst possible outcomes.
At those times, the anxiety had sometimes increased to such a degree that it had triggered a fight-flight-freeze response within me. The fight option meant I risked becoming aggressive, the flight option becoming passive and, as a result, I simply – froze. One way I have learned to tackle this is to acknowledge the emotion and to challenge how sound the prediction is. It sometimes means doing the thing we fear most, to see what new opportunities it creates. To notice how we survive it.
It’s about resilience and, at work, it’s often about relationships. Claire Pedrick offers a stark challenge on this front: ‘What’s the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’ Guy Rothwell advocates a willingness to listen openly and also to have the courage, the authenticity, to speak up. Rick James proposes exercising courage with humility, to grasp the proverbial nettle, to have the difficult conversation and yet to address the person with open hand, not clenched fist.
How do you handle challenging conversations?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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