‘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.
‘What is the human being? In our anti-metaphysical age, we regard the question as having little importance. It is, however, the most crucial of all.’ (Felipe M. De Leon)
A good friend in the Philippines – St. Paul as I affectionately call him because of his dedication to the Jesus and the poor – works with student educators, teachers of the future. Today, he supported his students to create their own art exhibition as a way of exploring the relationship between art and humanities. It’s a topic that interests me too. I’ve travelled and worked in many different countries in the world but I’ve never encountered a culture as vibrantly and spontaneously artistic and creative as the Philippines. Music, dance and colour are everywhere, and with such natural richness of talent.
I find myself wondering – why is this? By stark contrast, in terms of art, my own part of the world can appear and feel quite cerebral, introverted and restrained. (I notice that even using the word ‘feel’ in that sentence can feel edgy and a bit risky in my context.) St, Paul’s students, like so many others I’ve had the great privilege of encountering in the Philippines, inspire me by their passion, energy and uninhibited emotional expression. They danced for me on my birthday even though I’ve never met them before, rather than offering me a simple written greeting. They bring the ordinary things of life to life.
In ‘Life as Art’, Felipe M. De Leon makes similar observations and explores cultural and contextual conditions that contribute to this gift-phenomenon. In Filipino society, in which, ‘a person learns to develop an expanded sense of self – a sphere of being which includes not only his (or her) individual self but encompasses immediate family, relatives, friends…closeness to others allows (one) to be more trusting, open and freely expressive. Arts and crafts are richest, most creative and diverse in communal cultures. Food is tastier, speech more melodic and things of everyday life more colourful.’
De Leon goes on to comment on other distinctive dimensions of Filipino culture and spirituality that also play a part. Yet there’s something about the relational dimension that resonates very powerfully with me. I notice when I work with people and groups that, if they feel genuinely loved, valued and involved, they often find themselves at their most free, experimental and creative too. Conversely, if they feel isolated, undervalued or excluded, they are more likely to become defended, closed-in or shut-down. These amazing Filipino students have a lot to teach the Western world, and me…and I’m still learning.
‘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.
'There is no act too small, no act too bold. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at critical points to create a power that governments cannot suppress.' (Howard Zinn)
At the heart of coaching generally lays a desire and opportunity for impact and change, a goal that may seem obvious, but one that raises important questions. As coaches aspiring to make a difference in the world, we can find ourselves navigating complex dilemmas. When we work with agents of change in, say, NGOs, charities, churches or public sector organizations, we often seek to empower individuals, teams, and organizations to be resourceful and effective in achieving transformation.
One challenge we may encounter is determining the coaching agenda. A Western coaching ethic advocates for giving the client complete control over the agenda, focusing on their chosen goals and boundaries. While this approach seems straightforward, our intention of promoting social change may lead us to contemplate how much influence we should exert on the client’s journey. What if the client's solutions seem unethical, ineffective, or could pose risks to broader social development?
Furthermore, when working in diverse cultural contexts, we need to be mindful of differing perspectives on individual autonomy. In some Eastern and Southern cultures, the concept of setting individual goals might not resonate the same way it does in the West. People in these cultures often prioritize the wishes and expectations of a wider group, whether family, team or community, before their own hopes and ambitions. We could risk inadvertently imposing our own cultural values onto the client.
The solution often lays in recognizing the significance of context and building a strong and trusting relationship with the client. By understanding the dynamics of power, language and agendas that may emerge between us, we can gain insight into the issues at hand and potential solutions. We become allies, working together to achieve meaningful impact. A critically-reflective process allows us to adapt our coaching practice on route and to challenge our assumptions as we learn and grow.
‘Human existence is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself – be it a meaning to fulfil, or another human being to encounter lovingly.’ (Viktor Frankl)
Existential coaching is a powerful and introspective approach that can empower individuals and groups to confront life's fundamental questions, find meaning and embrace personal and social responsibility. Rooted in existential philosophy, this coaching method guides clients through self-exploration, enabling them to confront their fears and uncertainties and make authentic choices aligned with their values. Here are some examples of existential coaching questions:
Existential coaching recognizes that we all face inherent dilemmas, and embracing these challenges can lead to personal and social growth. Using this approach, the coach serves as a supportive ally, helping clients to confront their concerns, explore their inner personal-cultural truths and develop a deeper understanding of themselves. The client can learn to navigate life's complexities with greater clarity and intention, leading to a more meaningful and purposeful life.
[Further reading: Monica Hanaway, The Handbook of Existential Coaching Practice (2020); Yannick Jacob, An Introduction to Existential Coaching (2019); Emmy van Deurzen & Monica Hanaway, Existential Perspectives on Coaching (2012)]
‘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.
‘When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can turn into deadly projectiles.’ (Despair.com)
You’ve probably heard of change management. You’ve probably heard of change management teams too. You’ve probably heard of change plans, like project plans, sometimes expressed in Gannt charts with rows of scheduled tasks, mapped against proposed timeframes. You’re less likely, I would guess, to have heard of a transition plan. A transition plan deals with the human dimensions of change, the underlying psychological, emotional and relational issues that often prove critical to its success.
Whilst change can often be planned and prepared for by agreeing desired outcomes, then working backwards to identify the practical steps needed to achieve them (a bit like working out the mechanical structure of a car engine in order to build one), transitions don’t work like that. A change process may be complex, in that there may be many interlinked moving parts, yet is in principle manageable. A transition process is dynamically-complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.
This means that transitions can only be handled effectively by ongoing conversations with affected people. It calls for open and honest dialogue. It calls us to be invitational, curious and co-creative. It involves listening, hearing, being responsive and building trust. ‘If we were to do X…what would it mean for you?’ ‘Given what it would mean for you, what would you need?’ Well-led transitions will influence mood, climate, energy, engagement and agency: critical success factors in any change.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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