‘I know that I know nothing.’ (Socrates)
Action Learning is an opportunity to receive questions. It’s founder, Reg Revans, advocated: ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ Revans’ approach was a radically different philosophy and praxis that stood in contrast to conventional didactic methods at the time. It affirms the value of not-knowing, curiosity and exploration. It facilitates a grappling with questions that have no easy answers and creating experimental solutions; without a pressure to hide from or impress peers.
A transformational dimension of Action Learning is the power of vulnerability in building trust. If I model an authentic openness, a willingness to share those issues and experiences that I find most perplexing or troubling in my own work, it may invite others, in Susan Scott’s words, to ‘come out from behind (themselves) and make it real’ too – if they choose it. Stephen Covey expresses this dynamic well in his insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’
I like the questions that Angie Bamgbose poses to herself in her insightful Action Learning blog, Race, Power and Privilege: ‘What is my gift? What am I still confused about? What have I learned? What will I do?’ It models the spirit of courage, humility and reflexivity that lays at the heart of Action Learning practice. It reminded me of guru Rick James’ opening words at an INTRAC webinar this year, looking at the future of humanitarian work internationally: ‘There is so much I don’t understand’.
How do you use questions to stimulate reflection, insight and action? How do you handle personal and cultural pressures to present a front, to impress or to ‘perform’?
(See also: Not-Knowing; Managing our Not-Knowing; Action Learning)
‘When the bombs were falling like rain, Jennie stayed here with us.’
As a leader in international NGO, Tearfund, Jennie had always struck me as a quiet and unassuming person. We visited community rebuilding initiatives together in Lebanon just after the harsh and brutal civil war. Amidst shattered buildings, lives broken by sectarian conflict, aerial bombardment of the Beirut power station (just as we arrived) and Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ troops everywhere, we met with Christian leaders who recounted countless stories of heartache and hope.
One of the things that struck me most was their deep reverence and respect for Jennie. Whenever she spoke, they listened with profound attention. Curious about this, I asked one of the leaders about it afterwards. He replied, ‘During the war, most NGOs withdrew because it became too dangerous for them to stay. Jennie was different. She refused to abandon us. When the bombs were falling like rain and we had nowhere else to run to or hide, Jennie stayed here with us.’
I felt completely speechless, humbled and amazed. I imagined myself in that same situation: how I would almost certainly have fled for my own safety – and have found or created very good reasons to justify myself for doing so. Yet what an impact now. The leadership and influence that Jennie was able to bring to this work by having been-with; not based on any hierarchical status, power or authority she held, but on a deep and incarnational, presence, relationship and trust.
‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is but begin to suffer under it and to oppose it. Because I believe in eternal life, I shall be active for the life of the people. Because I hope in the resurrection, I shall take part in the revolt of the people against all deadly oppressive powers.’ (Jürgen Moltmann)
It was tough living under martial law. Her father and neighbours were working hard in the fields during harvest time. As evening approached, without realising it, they were out slightly later than was allowed under the imposed curfew. When soldiers appeared, the farmers didn’t expect to have their hands and feet tied or to be wrongly accused of insurgency. Her father, now badly beaten and blooded, was dragged home to his wooden hut and thrown down a bank. She was only 5 years old at the time and, witnessing this horror, in desperation picked up a stone and threw it at one of the soldiers. He pulled out a gun, held it to her head and said, ‘I could kill you.’ Only the intervention of another soldier saved her: ‘Leave her. She’s a child.’
As I listened to this simple yet harrowing account, I could only imagine how this incident, this trauma, could have impacted on this young girl’s life. Certainly, as an adult, it has influenced her passion and stance against injustice, particularly violence in whatever form – whether physical via war, social-psychological via exclusion or insidious via corruption – against the poorest and most vulnerable people. Some years later, her uncle, a leader in a remote village, opposed the unethical practices of a powerful business and paid for it with his life. She too was hunted by a death squad for challenging a corrupt government official in front of the media. Only after he too was murdered, could she and her family return safely to their home.
It's a world that terrifies me. I don’t know if I could find the courage to stand firm on my beliefs and values in such circumstances. I’m afraid that I would shrink back, try to protect myself – and find ways to justify it. Later in her childhood years, this girl met Mother Teresa of Calcutta who placed her hands on her head and prayed for her. I do wonder if something profoundly spiritual happened in that moment. She throws her life on Jesus – for others, in love – relentlessly and at significant personal cost. When I appeal to her to keep safe, she cautions me to beware of being too safe: ‘If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for Jesus, you will find it.’ Jesus is her hard-edged hope. She takes him at his word.
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
A disaster unfolds.
Viewed at a distance of 22,300 miles (35,880km) through the lens of a weather satellite in space, the super typhoon that hit the Philippines this week looks quite majestic, its swirling shape displaying a serene, mystical beauty about it. Viewed from ground zero in the eye of the storm, it could not have looked and felt more different. Zoom in now to Jasmin, a poor woman braced with her children, wind and rain battering their fragile home ferociously. Typhoon Rai is one of the strongest storms recorded on Earth this year with wind speeds of 150mph (240kph) as it slammed into the islands.
The wind rips off her house roof viciously, as if lashing out with a merciless knife, and the windows shatter, exploding glistening shards of glass everywhere. She runs downstairs with her family to hide under the stairs, praying hard to Jesus, Saviour, in the pitch blackness of night with the deafening, terrifying roar above and around them. As morning breaks and the winds and rain start to subside, the devastation around them emerges from darkness like a war zone. The house looks like an empty shell and everything she had owned has been destroyed. (The poor have no savings – and no insurance).
People are walking around, dazed and dismayed by what has just hit them. Power supplies are down and long wooden posts covered in tangled cables lay broken across the roads. Debris is everywhere. People’s homes and possessions are strewn around heartlessly on the streets, as if by some angry, deranged monster. Jasmin looks around for water. Nothing. People are fighting to get onto passing motorbikes to look for help in the city. The petrol price has leapt to £8 (US $10) per litre overnight and the bike fares have soared high with it. Banks are closed, ATMs down and shops broken. No cash.
Emergency vehicles with supplies can’t get through, even if they are available and want to. The roads are impassable and impossible. The village is the epicentre of a disaster zone. The floodwater from the storm risks overwhelming the fragile sewage system, contaminating any fresh water that remains and creating a dangerous public health hazard. Fears arise that corrupt officials may covertly divert relief to their own families, friends and political supporters. All infrastructure is wrecked – and desperate people can become dangerous. The poor are left to pray, hope and fend for themselves.
Jasmin calls me, briefly, with a weak and faltering phone signal. She urges me to be calm. ‘Jesus is with us’, she says, with a strength of conviction that makes my own faith feel weak and pallid by contrast. Her battery goes flat and the call breaks off. There’s nowhere to charge it and no access to cash to buy a top-up card. She’s still looking earnestly for water, her children are too, and there are long queues of scared and frustrated people everywhere. Her words are ringing loudly with me as I write this and await further news: ‘Jesus is with us.’ Light shines in darkness. Remember the poor.
‘Just take the first step.’ (Martin Luther King)
I was intrigued by a colleague who had cycled recently from Land’s End to John O’Groats, a gruelling distance from one tip of the UK to the other covering some 1000 miles (1600km). When I asked what he had learned about what it takes to achieve such a great feat, he responded with a wry grin, ‘Just keep pedalling.’ I smiled at his brilliance. All other considerations of fitness, equipment and logistics apart, he had captured the essence of the task – and the hard key to its success – in a nutshell.
This was a classic case of simple but not easy. When faced with some of life’s most difficult challenges – which could equally be, say, a broken relationship or an unfulfilled aspiration – the solution can stare us in the face yet feel agonisingly beyond our grasp. We may overcomplicate things, become gripped by paralysis-of-analysis or fear, lack the focus or determination to do what it takes, or create all kinds of self-defeating reasons to justify our inaction. Nike’s advice: Just do it!
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Better to be on the edge than on the fence? There are times and places where diplomacy is the best option. There are, too, roles and situations in which a degree of neutrality is essential to enable a successful outcome. Coaching, mediation, group facilitation and process consultation are good examples. To become too embedded or embroiled is to lose the value that relative independence can bring. Yet, in spite of this, the most radical change often takes place at the bleeding edge.
What does that mean? At times it’s about leadership, taking a firm stance based on our beliefs and values, no matter how unpopular that may be or make us. This sometimes involves taking a counter-stance to prevailing received-wisdom, culture and norms. We associate various graphic metaphors with this approach, e.g. cutting edge; cut-through. The bleeding can result from the reaction, the push-back, the potential personal and professional cost. To take a stance can be and feel bruising.
At times it’s about being authentic, congruent and revealing our proverbial cards. ‘This is my stance on this issue. Let’s discuss how we can manage the boundary together so that it works positively for our relationship’ is very different to, ‘I don’t have a view on this’ or, ‘I don’t want to reveal my stance in case it impacts negatively on our relationship.’ The former can build trust; the latter may leave a person or a group suspicious or unsure. In my experience, this can be a sharp edge to negotiate.
How do you handle disclosure and stance in your professional relationships? How close do you get to the bleeding edge?
At just 5 feet (152 cm) tall, this Filipina presents an imposing stature. She went out this week to provide emergency food and modest cash gifts to some of the poorest people in the Philippines, those who live at the roadside on zero income owing to the Covid-19 lockdown. She herself is very poor yet determined to share what she has for the benefit of strangers in need. She prays to Jesus, dons a face mask and heads out fearlessly. One family revealed they had barely survived until she arrived. They had been living on just boiled water with a little sugar stirred into it. No rice, and little hope.
One group surrounded her when she at first appeared. Some men grabbed the bags of rice that she carried with her, skulking away in an attempt to avoid being caught. At that, she lifted her mask and yelled assertively: ‘Bring that back now, or I leave here with everything I came with.’ Slowly…the stealthy thieves reappeared, with guilty expressions on their faces now, and handed them back. She explained, ‘We are poor, but this is no way to conduct ourselves. We need to learn to share what we have, like Jesus.’ She then held out the sacks and cash, and every family went home with something real.
I asked her if she had felt nervous, to be confronted and robbed like that in broad daylight. She was, after all, alone among strangers and anything could have happened. She said no, she wasn’t afraid, because she had prayed hard before setting out. ‘I know what it is to be poor, and I have lived my entire life among the poor.’ I reflected on how I might have acted defensively in response, annoyed by their attitude and fearful for my own safety. By contrast, she showed courage, empathy, faith and love. Question: When have you been at your most fearless? What made the difference for you?
‘Did you just fall?’ ‘No, I was checking if gravity still works.’ (Meggy Jo)
‘You are responsible for everything that happens to you.’ That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? This was the opening line of some motorcycle training I signed up to last week. I have owned 24 bikes and been off 19 times but some of them definitely were not my fault. At least, I didn’t think so. The training is challenging me to think very differently about my own part in what happened – what I knew or didn’t know; what I was feeling; the various choices and decisions I made; the actions that led to a crash.
This is similar to psychiatrist William Glasser’s ‘total behaviour’ in Choice Theory. Glasser proposes that everything we ‘do’ (i.e. thoughts; actions; feelings; physiology) is a dimension of chosen behaviour. He argues strongly that we have a high degree of direct control over our actions and thoughts and a fair degree of indirect control over our feelings and physiology. It’s a radical idea, offering a vision of far greater personal agency and responsibility than many of us would imagine possible.
If I genuinely have choice over what I do, I am also capable of choosing something better. It means no more ducking and diving, attributing what happens in my life (or on my bike) solely to others or to circumstances. I can’t control everything, but I do have an influence over what happens next and how. This kind of awakening can feel liberating and scary, and often calls for real humility and courage. What are you willing to take responsibility for? How do you challenge and support choice in others?
‘A clash between two people doesn’t mean either one is bad. Show some understanding and tolerance, unless they are a serial killer…in which case, run.’ (Stephanie Davies)
A close friend in the Philippines heard a sharp disturbance outside today. Two neighbours were engaged in a knife fight. It started over one person showing rations she had received, during lockdown, to another. The other, worried for her own family facing starvation, took it as an insult, as bragging, and flew at her. This Filipina stepped into the affray, held a safer space between them, and calmed them down. I asked what on earth possessed her to do it. She said, ‘They were acting out of desperation, out of fear.’ She gave the aggrieved party what little cash she herself had left. The woman burst into tears. She could now buy food for her baby. Enough to survive. Life is hard-edged for the poor.
Here’s a Malaysian friend, this time in Cambodia and well before the lockdown started. He’s the manager of a hotel chain and locked in a dispute with staff. This friend knows he has to hold his ground but things are tense and risk getting out of control. He invites the trade union leader to meet him in his office, to see if they can negotiate a way forward. The leader arrives, sits down, places a loaded pistol and two hand grenades on the desk, and says, ‘OK, let’s talk.’ Now I’ve faced some tough negotiations in my time but none that come close to that. I asked what he did. My friend replied, ‘I stood fast. I figured that, if he had intended to kill me, he would have done it already.’
Such accounts and experiences certainly put my own work and life into perspective. I’m rarely placed in situations where tensions are anywhere near that high, or where I’m called upon to show such stark courage in the face of real danger. In the first instance, the Filipina responded with empathy for both pro- and antagonist. She saw beyond their actions to the real people, to the deep anxieties that lay behind their drama. In the second, the manager interpreted the encoded meaning behind his counterpart’s actions, reading the cultural messages and signals it pointed towards. When have you found yourself having to respond urgently to a crisis? How did you do it? What happened?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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