An opportunity to receive questions.
‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ (Reg Revans)
You may have heard of Action Learning – a powerful tool used in organisations and between peers to learn in the context of action, and act in the context of learning. It typically involves one person presenting an issue, and then receiving critical questions from peers that enable them to think it through for themselves and reach their own solutions. In this sense, we could think of a conventional Action Learning process as a group-team of individuals providing coaching-consultancy to an individual.
I saw this idea turned on its head on a trip to Africa. An organisation was grappling with key strategic issues and invited leaders and professionals to form Action Learning sets to address them. Instead of one person presenting, however, the groups first spent time clarifying and crystallising their own issues. They then asked of themselves and each other: What are the critical questions that, if we could answer them, would provide us with strategic options? They finished by reaching agreement on solutions.
It’s the first time I had seen Action Learning used as a collective venture in this way. It was a a shared, relational process of inquiry, ownership and problem-solving wherein the group itself functioned simultaneously as both client and coach-consultant. I have seen similar patterns of approach used in Asia since. What strikes me is that this isn’t just a different, novel methodology or technique. It’s the product of a deep cultural mindset, belief and stance that sees, values and places the group first.
In my experience, there are corresponding benefits and risks to working in these different ways. An individual-orientation can develop personal insight, awareness and autonomy yet may lack ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ strength and cohesion in addressing change. A group-orientation, on the other hand, can bring the latter advantages to bear, yet faces its own risks including social loafing, conflict-avoidance or group-think. I’m curious, therefore: what have been your experiences of Action Learning?
When teams are under pressure, e.g. dealing with critical issues, sensitive topics or working to tight deadlines, tensions can emerge that lead to conversations getting stuck. Stuck-ness between two or more people most commonly occurs when at least one party’s underlying needs are not being met, or a goal that is important to them feels blocked.
The most obvious signs or stuck-ness are conversations that feel deadlocked, ping-pong back and forth without making progress or go round and round in circles. Both parties may state and restate their views or positions, wishing the other would really hear. If unresolved, responses may include anger/frustration (fight) or disengagement/withdrawal (flight).
If such situations occur, a simple four step process can make a positive difference, releasing the stuck-ness to move things forward. It can feel hard to do in practice, however, if caught up in the drama and the tense feelings that ensue! I’ve found that jotting down questions as an aide memoire can help, especially if stuck-ness is a repeating pattern.
1. Observation. (‘What’s going on?’). This stage involves metaphorically (or literally) stepping back from the interaction to notice and comment non-judgementally on what’s happening. E.g. ‘We’re both stating our positions but seem a bit stuck’. ‘We seem to be talking at cross purposes.’
2. Awareness. (‘What’s going on for me?’). This stage involves tuning into my own experience, owning and articulating it, without projecting onto the other person. E.g. ‘I feel frustrated’. ‘I’m starting to feel defensive.’ ‘I’m struggling to understand where you are coming from.’ ‘I’m feeling unheard.’
3. Inquiry. (‘What’s going on for you?’). This stage involves inquiring of the other person in an open spirit, with a genuine, empathetic, desire to hear. E.g. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘What are you wanting that you are not receiving?’ ‘What’s important to you in this?’ ‘What do you want me to hear?’
4. Action. ('What will move us forward?’) This stage involves making requests or suggestions that will help move the conversation forward together. E.g. ‘This is where I would like to get to…’ ‘It would help me if you would be willing to…’. ‘What do you need from me?’ ‘How about if we try…’
Shifting the focus of a conversation from content to dynamics in this way can create opportunity to surface different felt priorities, perspectives or experiences that otherwise remain hidden. It can allow a breathing space, an opportunity to re-establish contact with each other. It can build understanding, develop trust and accelerate the process of achieving results.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What are your favourite coaching questions? I often use 3 that I’ve found can create a remarkable shift in awareness, insight and practice, especially in team coaching. I’ve applied them using variations in language and adapted them to different client issues, opportunities and challenges. They draw on principles from psychodynamic, Gestalt and solutions-focused coaching and are particularly helpful when a client or team feels stuck, unable to find a way forward.
* ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’
* ‘What do you need, to contribute your best?’
* ‘What would it take..?’
Client: ‘These meetings feel so boring! I always leave feeling drained rather than energised.’ Coach: ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ Client: ‘Excuse me?’ Coach: ‘What do you do when you feel bored?’ Client: ‘I drift away, look out of the window.’ Coach: ‘What might be the impact on the wider group when you drift away?’ Client: ‘I guess others may disengage too.’ Coach: ‘How does the meeting feel when people disengage?’ Client: 'Hmmm…boring!’
Coach: ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’ Client: ‘It would help certainly if we could negotiate and agree the agenda beforehand, rather than focus on things that feel irrelevant.’ Coach: ‘So you want to ensure the agenda feels relevant to you. What else?’ Client: ‘If we could meet off site and break for coffee from time to time, that would feel more energising.’ Coach: ‘So venue and breaks make a difference too. Anything else?’ Client: ‘No, that’s it.’
Client: ‘I don’t think I can influence where and how these meetings are held.’ Coach: ‘It sounds like you feel quite powerless. How would you rate your level of influence on a scale of 1-10?’ Client: ‘Around 3’. Coach: ‘What would it take to move it up to a 6 or 7?’ Client: ‘I guess if I showed more support in the meetings, the leader may be more open to my suggestions.’ Coach: ‘What else would it take?’ Client: ‘I could work on building my relationship with the leader outside of meetings too.’
These type of questions can help a client grow in awareness of the interplay between intrapersonal, interpersonal and group dynamics, his or her impact within a wider system, what he or she needs to perform well and how to influence the system itself. They can also shift a person or team from mental, emotional and physical passivity to active, optimistic engagement. What are your favourite coaching questions? How have you used them and what happened as a result?
Do you work in organisation development (OD) or human resources (HR)? Or do you work in leadership and management and feel curious to know what these fields are, what they cover and what the differences are between them? Do you feel confused by distinctions when when, after all, they are both concerned with human aspects of organisations? I will attempt to introduce both fields below and to explain common focus areas, differences between them and what kinds of people tend to be drawn to them.
What is OD?
OD is a broad field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use this term differently, to mean different things. OD practitioners often have a psychological and systemic orientation and focus their attention on areas such as leadership, culture and engagement. They are interested in questions like, ‘what human-related factors are influencing this organisation's success?' ‘why are things as they are?’, ‘how could we be more innovative or effective?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, questioning, reflecting, influencing, reframing and sense-making. OD practitioners are often found working alongside top teams, providing internal consultancy, guidance and coaching. They aim to raise awareness, stimulate fresh ways of thinking, challenge the status quo, build capacity for the future, enhance organisational experience and effectiveness.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. strategic, leadership, culture, values, relationships, teamwork, engagement, inquiry, challenge, opportunity, influence, concept, change, innovation, dynamics, perspectives, reframing, sense-making, capacity,
learning, development, impact.
What is HR?
HR is a fairly well-defined field of thinking and practice. Different organisations use HR in different ways. As a general principle, however, HR practitioners often have a legal, policy and process orientation and focus their attention on areas such as employment and performance management. They are interested in questions like, ‘what staff resources do we need?’, ‘how can we attract, recruit and retain the best people’, ‘how can we ensure people perform well?’
Their core skills include relationship-building, influencing, applying legal/policy frameworks and assertiveness. HR practitioners are found operating at a number of different levels. These range from HR strategizing through business partnering through policy implementation to payroll. They aim to ensure that staff resources are well deployed and that people are treated fairly and consistently.
Key words associated with this field: e.g. employment law, policy, structure, competencies, jobs, talent, contracts, frameworks, staff, recruitment, selection, contracts, management, performance, appraisal, reward, retention, employee relations, discipline, grievance, salary, payroll, benefits.
What do OD and HR have in common?
OD and HR are both interested in the relationship between people and organisations. They both regard people as a key contributor to an organisation’s success. They both have a humanistic outlook, an ethical belief that people should be treated well.
What are the differences?
It’s difficult to draw direct comparisons and contrasts because OD practitioners work mainly as coaches and consultants to leadership teams whereas HR practitioners operate at many different levels, ranging through strategic HR, business partnering and transactional-administrative tasks. However, there are some general common characteristics outlined in the table below, bearing in mind these vary from practitioner to practitioner and from organisation to organisation. These differences create potential for synergy and, sometimes, sources of tension.
What could a typical OD role look like?
This varies from role to role and organisation to organisation. In my own experience, I've been responsible in OD roles for strategy and change, values and culture, leadership and management development, staff and team development, internal communication and staff engagement, performance management and development. However, the following are common:
Develop effective leaders and leadership teams through coaching, consultancy and facilitation.
Support effective change leadership through providing guidance and building leadership capability.
Work alongside leaders to develop an inspiring, engaging and effective organisational culture.
Create leadership development opportunities (e.g. seminars/training, mentoring, action learning).
Oversee the L&D function, focusing on management, staff and team development.
When does OD work with HR?
OD and HR practitioners most commonly work collaboratively in areas including the following:
Change leadership and management.
Performance management and development.
Talent management and development.
Induction and training.
If you've had different experiences of OD and HR, or hold different views about what they are and the differences between them, please do share your views here too! I would be interested to hear more.
I was speaking with a colleague recently who felt trapped in unresolved conflict. It was a key relationship, one that couldn’t be avoided, and all previous efforts had failed. As a consequence, both parties were feeling frustrated, de-energised and despondent about the future. As we explored how they had attempted to fix things in the past, it became clear they had focused on all the negatives…a long list of annoying and painful experiences from the past. Their conversations were characterised by blame and demands. It felt intractable.
The problem with such patterns of behaviour is that they create a negative expectation of the future. Both parties now felt stressed before they even spoke with each other. The stress affected their perspective and their resilience, their ability to hear and to cope. So we decided to try a different approach. How to build a positive expectation in order to create a different focus, a different conversation and, ultimately, a different relationship. It wouldn’t be easy but it felt worth a go. My colleague felt sceptical but, nevertheless, willing to give it a try.
Firstly, we agreed that next time they spoke, they would meet off site in a physical environment (e.g. café, park) that they both found positively stimulating and energising. This helped to break them away from the current environment that held such negative memories for them. Secondly, we agreed they would speak only of the positive moments in their relationship together. They found this hard at first. The negative experiences felt so overwhelming that they could hardly think of any positives. Nevertheless, they managed to remember some examples.
Thirdly, we agreed that after sharing such positive examples, they would each share future hopes for their relationship: ‘what we would like our relationship to be more like, more of the time’. They reflected each others’ hopes back to each other: ‘So you would like…’ Fourthly, we agreed they would move on to discuss ‘what it would take from me to make this work in practice’. This shifted each party’s focus from the other onto themselves. ‘This is how I would need to change…this is what it will take for me to do it…this is the help I will need.’
This kind of approach demands openness to fresh possibilities, humility, a willingness to forgive. It demands imagination and courage too, an ability to envision and embrace a new future. It’s not easy and the support of a friend, counsellor or coach can help make the journey possible. I would be interested to hear examples from others who’ve worked on conflict resolution too. What was the issue? How did you approach it? What happened as a result? What made the biggest difference? What did you learn? What would you do the same or differently next time?
Have you ever found yourself facing a problem, an insurmountable challenge, that leaves you feeling frustrated, tired or stressed? Have you ever found it difficult to get an intractable problem out of your head, to step back and view the whole situation from a radically different perspective?
Carole Pemberton’s book, Coaching to Solutions (2006), presents a practical and hope-inspiring approach to coaching that aims to draws a client’s attention away from problems, diagnostics and analysis of the present or past towards future-orientated goals, resources and resourcefulness. It strikes me as a bit like appreciative inquiry. It’s an optimistic approach that focuses on the positive. ‘What would a great future look and feel like?’, ‘What are the strengths you can build on?’, ‘What resources are available in your environment to draw on?’, ‘Let’s plan the next steps.’
Anthony Grant (in The Coaching Psychologist journal, Dec 2011) explores this approach further in ways I found helpful so will share some of them here. He draws links between solutions focused coaching and insights and practices from other, more overtly psychological based schools. Firstly, solutions focused coaching has a ‘non-pathological orientation’. This is essentially means that when a person describes a problem he or she is facing, the coach sees this as an opportunity or challenge for the client to work on, rather than as some inherent deficit in the client.
Secondly, it is ‘future orientated’. This is perhaps one of the greatest differences between solutions focused and traditional analytical approaches. The principal focus is on the client’s desired goals or future state, not on how or where he or she is now or on how he or she arrived here. Thirdly, it focuses on ‘constructing solutions and disengaging from problems’. It believes that when a client becomes preoccupied with a problem or the causes of the problem, he or she can get stuck. Instead, the coach challenges the client to focus on solutions that will move things forward.
Fourthly, it is ‘outcome or goal orientated’. This means the coach will work with the client to help him or her envision a desired future and to plan the practical steps that will help him or her to achieve it. This could involve actively ignoring current problems and refocusing on solutions. Fifthly, it involves ‘utilising and activating existing client resources’. This means the solutions-focused coach will help raise the client’s awareness of personal resources (e.g. strengths, capabilities) and contextual resources (e.g. finances, networks) that he or she can draw on to move forward.
Grant draws interesting parallels with other psychological schools. For instance, enabling the client to disengage from problems is similar to tackling rumination (persistent preoccupation with an issue) or problem-saturated thinking in cognitive behavioural therapy or coaching practice. Solution focused coaching’s emphasis on envisioning goals, where goals are ‘internal representations of desired states or outcomes’, is similar to principles in goal-setting psychology and client resource activation is similar to the strengths-based aspects of positive psychology (‘what am I good at?).
So what might all of this look like in practice? Allow your mind to dwell for a moment on a problem you are facing currently. It may be large or small, recent or persistent. Now imagine putting it to one side and focus on what you want the future to look and feel like. Try to imagine and feel it vividly. Now allow your thoughts to ponder different ideas or approaches that could help you move towards that goal. Don’t be constrained by what you’ve tried previously or where you’ve become stuck. Allow yourself to think freely, to be playful as you imagine possible ways to achieve it.
Jot down what resources you have that you could draw on to move forward. For example, previous experiences, prayer, expertise, money, friendships, contacts, personality traits. Again, allow yourself to be free and creative. Remind yourself of where and how you have been successful previously. Finally, capture your vision on paper. Perhaps draw it as a picture, a symbol, a journey. Something evocative and compelling for you. Add the resources you can draw on to move forward. Write down your next steps and, in doing so, make them practical – and choose to do them.
This can feel easier said than done when doing it alone, hence the value of working with or as a skilled coach or therapist. If you find it difficult, try doing it with someone else who’s prepared to guide, pose the questions and to gently challenge any unhelpful or unfounded assumptions. Solution focused coaching can feel encouraging, empowering and releasing. It helps to break negative patterns of thought that drain our energy and limit our effectiveness. It isn’t a magic bullet for all situations but it can make a refreshing change to traditional analysis and problem-solving.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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