‘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. Fook & Askeland (2007) suggest that, in such contexts, it can be useful to distinguish between 'personal' and 'private'; where the former relates to the person’s abilities, characteristics and qualities – that is, within learning scope – and the latter to that which may be regarded culturally as appropriate to hide. ‘This helps us to define the limits for what to share.’
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.
'Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities and views of life.' (Carl Rogers)
A common consideration we face in coaching and action learning is, when asking a question, whom the question – or indeed the answer to the question – is for. For instance, if a person is describing a scenario in sketchy terms, we may be tempted to ask them to say more about it so that we have a better picture of the situation they have in mind. If they use jargon or acronyms with which we are unfamiliar, we may ask them to explain what they mean in order to fill our information gaps.
If you work in a job such as a manager, professional or consultant, this approach to asking questions may sound and feel very familiar to you. It’s probable that you are employed in such a role because you’re an expert in your field and are able, therefore, to contribute. It may be that others come to you with tricky problems in the hope that you can solve them for them. It’s likely that you will ask questions that help ensure you’re able to offer an appropriate diagnosis, prescription or solution.
Now turn this on its head. In coaching and action learning, I don’t need to know very much at all about a situation another person is talking about. My role is to help them to explore fresh avenues of thought and experience for themselves, in order to find or create their own innovative solutions. When I present this idea in training workshops, however, I often see participants look back at me with scepticism. ‘How are we supposed to pose useful questions if we don’t know anything?’
In one such workshop this week, I invited a group of online participants to engage in a simple experiment with me. I asked them to pay close attention, while I described a real challenge I’m dealing with. Before I began to say anything more about the issue itself, however, I turned off my microphone. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, I turned on my microphone again and asked them what questions they could now pose to help me think through my own issue more broadly or deeply.
It was a lightbulb moment. After a few moments of silence, questions began to emerge. ‘Which aspect of this matters most to you?’ ‘If you were to be successful in moving ahead with this, what would that look like?’ ‘Which part of this is causing you greatest anxiety or concern?’ I then turned off the microphone again and spoke further. A few minutes later, microphone back on again…then another invitation for questions. The group paused again, then posed further questions to me.
‘Where are you at now in relation to your thinking about this?’ ‘How will you know if you have landed on the right decision?’ ‘What support will you need to move this forward?’ It was a powerful moment of realisation. As we reviewed together what had happened, some profound group insights emerged. ‘We didn’t get drawn into the issue with you because we didn’t know what you were talking about.’ ‘Our questions focused on you in relation to the issue, rather than on the issue itself.’
The client is the expert. My role is to help develop, release and apply that expertise to influence change.
Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
‘Think of your techniques as toys rather than tools.’ (Brian Watts)
This was an insightful, inspiring and innovative coach who had a gift for working at the learning edge, the leading edge, the sometimes bleeding edge. I had the pleasure of working with him as a close colleague and as a client. For me, it was a profound, at times disconcerting, and yet often invigorating learning experience. It challenged my ingrained, default ways of thinking about and doing my work. It also gave me my first experiential taste of the power of Gestalt.
His approach started with a simple and open invitation, ‘Be free, creative and experimental. See what happens. Let the child play!’ His conviction was that transformation takes place (a) through experiential learning, and (b) at what is, for the client, his or her own learning edge. It’s that frontier horizon at which we place our self- and culturally-imposed limits. It’s the stretched and stretching place where we may discover our own subconscious psychological defences too.
I talked about a forthcoming meeting with an executive team. I was new in my career and found the anticipation of this encounter very anxiety-provoking. The coach invited me to leave the room, then to step back in as if entering the executive meeting room itself. When I did so, he observed (to my surprise) that I was holding my hand across my chest, as if protecting my heart. ‘How would it be if you were to reveal your heart in that meeting?’ I did so, and that transformed everything.
In the creative, experimental spirit that lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching, he reminded me, ‘Sometimes these things will fall flat. It’s always a leap of faith.’ It’s a suck-it-and-see approach: try something new and see what may emerge into awareness. It taught me that learning has rational, emotional, intuitive, imaginative and somatic dimensions. I discovered I stand to learn most when I take a risk, when I dare to step out and beyond my natural-instinctive learning mode.
Curious to experience the power of Gestalt? Get in touch!
[For more examples of Gestalt coaching in practice, see: Just do it; Crab to dolphin; Let's get physical]
‘Respect deeply the otherness of the other.’ (Richard Young)
Navigating boundaries is a critical skill in coaching and action learning. Anne Katharine describes this phenomenon succinctly in the subtitle of her book: Where You End and I Begin (2000). Incorporate Psychology provides a useful explanation of different kinds of relational boundaries and what can go wrong if they become blurred, enmeshed or rigid. Khalil Gibran writes poetically on this same theme in The Prophet (1923): ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness. Let the winds of the heavens dance between you…Even as the strings of the lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.’
In coaching and action learning, a variety of boundaries emerge that we need to pay attention to for this work to be effective. In a coaching relationship, the coach and client learn to navigate these including: their respective roles and responsibilities; their places and times of meetings; their accountabilities to any wider stakeholders; the scope and parameters of what each will focus on, and not; their agreements on what will remain confidential, or not, and to whom. In action learning, further boundaries include those between facilitator and group, and those between different group participants and roles.
At deeper human levels, Gestalt psychology speaks of confluence, where a boundary is dissolved and the quality of healthy contact is compromised. The coach and client, or action learning presenter and peers, need to differentiate between, for instance: what’s simply here-and-now and what’s transference from the past; what’s the coach/peers’ stuff and what’s that of the client or presenter; what’s just about the client or presenter and what’s a parallel process of wider systemic or cultural influences. Managing boundaries is, we discover, a key dimension to success in these fields.
‘Are we learning yet?’ (John Connor to the Terminator)
‘History never repeats itself. Every single historical moment is distinct from those past.’ (Angela Johnson). That said, we can and do well to learn from the past to help inform our decisions for the future. This is a core principle of Learning Reviews. Some years ago, Learning Reviews were a key part of knowledge management (KM). The idea of KM was to capture, distil and disseminate learning from projects, to save others in future from having to start from scratch or re-invent the wheel.
Things became quite complex if, say, project participants had a vested interest (e.g. for competitive advantage) in retaining, rather than sharing, what they had learned from experience; or hidden factors that had influenced success in one instance or arena were subtly different to those in a new situation. Against this backdrop, KM evolved into wisdom management (WM), where those engaged in the process would critically-evaluate insights and ideas rather than simply re-apply them.
I ran lots of Learning Reviews with international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), where I developed and practised an appreciative approach that I will share here. Imagine a grid with ‘What Went Well’ (WWW) and ‘Even Better If’ (EBI) as column headings; and ‘Why’, ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Who’ as separate rows. ‘Why’ focuses on purpose; ‘What’ on content; ‘How’ on methods; and ‘Who’ on people and relationships. I would give each key stakeholder a copy of the template in advance.
At the start of a Learning Review meeting, I would invite participants to decide on key questions (e.g. ‘What are the questions that, if we were to answer them, would enable us to draw out key insights?’). Then, I would facilitate the group to engage in a process of critical reflexivity, addressing blind spots (e.g. ‘What assumptions are we making that could prevent us gaining deeper insights?') and hot spots (e.g. ‘What issues may we be tempted to avoid in case they feel too difficult or painful?’).
This groundwork with a group at the outset often proved vital. It enabled participants to contract with me and with each other around issues such as trust, vulnerability, humility and courage, as foundations for the Review itself. We would then explore the Why, What, How and Who dimensions using the WWW and EBI philosophy and approach, working rigorously to identify the conditions (e.g. personal or broader contextual) that had contributed to what had been experienced.
I would end the Review by inviting participants to identify and crystallise, out of all that had been considered and discussed, the top 3-5 critical success factors for initiatives of this type. The final challenge would be to articulate and publish the resulting discoveries as tangible, transferable recommendations that would be easily understandable and accessible to other leaders and participants in future projects, along with details of who to contact if further insight is needed.
What have been your experiences of Learning Reviews? What have you learned through doing them?
Out of the building
‘To lead real change, it’s not enough to think outside of the box. We need to think outside of the building.’ (Rosabeth Moss Kanter)
I’m in a coaching conversation with Anna, a client who feels stressed. She describes it as being like trapped inside a box, with no way out; where the box is her organisation, her job, the role she’s in now. The narrative she’s telling herself is that she has no possibility to escape from the debilitating pressure she’s experiencing. Her scope of authority to influence change is too constrained and she’s expected to deliver against targets that feel impossible. She feels totally helpless and hopeless. I acknowledge and empathise with how Anna is feeling, then ask if she’d be interested to explore potential options that could be available to her. At first, she pushes back, as if instinctively. ‘I don’t have any options – that is the problem’. I ask, inquisitively, to test the boundary a bit: ‘You could leave?’ ‘I can’t leave’, she replies, immediately and forcefully, ‘I have a mortgage to pay’. ‘So, the mortgage is part of the box?’, I ask. ‘Hmm. I guess it is’, she replies, more thoughtfully this time.
‘What if you weren’t to pay the mortgage?’, I ask. She looks bemused. ‘It would mean I’d lose the house, of course’, she snaps. ‘And, if you lost the house?’ ‘That would be terrible’, she replies, ‘It’s my dream home.’ ‘So, the dream home is, perhaps, part of the box?’ I ask. Anna goes quiet. After a while, she looks up and responds, ‘I don’t want to lose my home.’ ‘So: it’s as if, to keep your dream home, you feel that you have no option but to stay in your current job to pay your mortgage?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Imagine now, for a moment, dismantling or breaking out of the box that you feel trapped in. If you were to imagine a spectrum of options, ranging from the status quo to what you might think of as a most extreme solution (the ‘nuclear option’), what might they be?’ Anna picks up a piece of paper and a pen and starts to write. ‘At the extreme end, I could sell the house and downsize to a cheaper house or location, then I could get try to get a less expensive mortgage, but I don’t want to do that.’
‘At the other end, I could stay as I am and just accept that the frustration in my job is a price worth paying to keep the house that I love.’ ‘And..?’, I ask. ‘I guess I could apply for another job.’ ‘Say more?’ ‘Well, I could look at other jobs in my organisation.’ ‘Yet the organisation sounds like it may be part of the box too? What if you were to think outside of the box altogether?’ ‘True. I could look at job opportunities elsewhere, or even at a change of career that would feel more fun and fulfilling!’ ‘So, there are, perhaps, some options that could feel in tension for you? The house…or a career that could feel more fun and fulfilling? Which stands out as most important for you?’ ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but if I could find something I really love doing, I might just be willing to consider moving house to do it. Perhaps I’m allowing my attachment to the house to box me in.’ Suddenly, I see a lightbulb moment flash in her eyes. ‘Eeek…’ she says, ‘Perhaps the house is the box!’ Breakthrough.
Anna has left the building.
[See also: Boxes; Deconstructing the box; and Lateral instinct]
‘If the blade is not kept sharp and bright, the law of rust will assert its claim.’ (Orison Swett Marden)
‘Clients value moments when a (coach) listens in a way that allows them to know that they are being heard, shares a relevant reflection, or asks a question that makes it possible to see an issue from a different perspective. By contrast, the hope that (coaching) might make a positive difference may be terminally undermined by selective or inattentive listening, awkward or self-serving personal disclosures or interrogative lines of questioning.’ (Julia & John McLeod, The Significance of Being Skilful, Therapy Today, BACP, November 2022).
Writing in the context of counselling and therapeutic practice (which I have taken the liberty of re-applying to coaching here), McLeod and McLeod comment that practitioners often associate skills practice with training at the start of their career, rather than with an on-going development journey throughout their career. Many of the skills themselves are common to ordinary human relationships. ‘(Coaching) skills can be understood as comprising the application of generic interpersonal and communication skills for a specific purpose.’
It's as if an effective coach takes normal skills, hones them to a very high standard, then applies them intentionally and in a focused way to enable change with-for a client. A challenge lays in how to do this well, with wisdom and discernment, given that there are so many dynamically-complex factors in a client relationship and context that can fundamentally influence what the client will experience as beneficial. ‘The implementation of a skill in a real-life situation requires a capacity to improvise in response to what is happening in the moment.’
This is where on-going critical reflection and development is so important, perhaps with a supervisor or mentor or in an action learning set. ‘By creating opportunities for revisiting deeply ingrained ways of relating to others, the process of developing (coaching) skills can be both emotionally challenging and life-enhancing…(including) a capacity to maintain skilful and responsive contact with clients in situations of emotional pressure, such as the client becoming demanding, angry with the (coach) or withdrawn.’ I agree. So – how do you stay sharp?
I don't know
‘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)
Test and learn
‘The willingness to experiment, it turns out, is the chief indicator of how innovative a person or company will be.’ (Hal Gregorson)
Test and Learn is an experimental, adaptive technique, used to address complexity, uncertainty and innovation. It’s useful in situations where, say, past experience isn't a reliable guide for future action because e.g. critical conditions have changed. It’s also useful when moving into new, unchartered territory where the evidence needed for sound decision-making can only be generated by, ‘let's suck it and see’. It shares a lot in common with action research: create a tentative hypothesis, step forward, observe the results, try to make sense of them, refine the hypothesis, take the next step.
Test and Learn is used in fast-paced, fluid environments, such as by rapid-onset disaster response teams where conventional strategizing and planning isn't realistic or possible. By the time a detailed plan is formulated, things have moved on - and the paper it's written on is sent for recycling before the ink has dried. Test and Learn is also used by marketing teams when testing new products or services or seeking to penetrate new or not-yet-known markets. It provides tangible evidence based on customer responses which, in turn, enables change or refinement before investing further.
What psychological, relational and cultural conditions enable Test and Learn to work?
When have you used Test and Learn? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
(See also: Unpredictable; Adaptive)
Have you eaten?
In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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