Sometimes we’re asked what it is exactly that we do as action learning facilitators. Don’t we just sit in a room with a group of people and let them talk?
I’m more than happy to set the record straight!
An action learning set brings together people or colleagues who may or may not know each other, or they may never have actually met in person. They’re then required to talk quite openly about specific issues, so that the process of reaching a plan of action for progress can take place.
The success of this process depends to a great extent on the skills of the facilitator in bringing groups together, setting out very clear protocols for participation, and creating an environment of trust and openness.
We begin with clear contracting with the participants about what action learning is, what is required of them and an understanding of the objectives. We set very specific ground rules of confidentiality and how we expect set members to interact. Depending on who they are this may even extend to asking them to look at boundaries beyond the set. We look at commitment, confidentiality and the behaviour in the sets and ensure people are clear about what they are committing to.
Without this framework for working, the set members can find they are sceptical, confused and even suspicious of what is about to happen.
Once the set is underway, a whole range of other skills come to the fore. For many facilitators they notice the challenges that both listening and the use of silence create. Set members do not always listen as deeply and fully as the presenter needs – this shows in a rush to offer advice or suggestions, albeit shrouded as a question.
We need to make this process spoken and look at the quality of listening and what is the intention behind a question. This can help participants realise they were asking a question to allow them to guide the presenter rather than starting where the presenter is.
The facilitator in an action learning set needs to be able to work with silence, to allow for it, to notice participant’s reluctance to allow it and to work with them to develop their own awareness of what silence means for them. Often in silence the presenter is doing their best thinking, creative work that they have not had the space, time or support to do elsewhere. Action learning is a reflective process; the facilitator must create an environment in which this can happen.
An action learning set that works with the process will generate for its members new thinking and new perspectives to challenges, problems and opportunities. At times the work will be at a depth the participants did not expect and this level of work, sometimes on sensitive issues, takes courage and can only happen when the environment is exactly right. The facilitator holds the group in this complex work, creates a safe space and reinforces the process to allow for the reflective learning. Set members will need to recognise the difficulty and the value in the work, and participate accordingly.
A skilled facilitator will also reflect back to the set how they are developing in a neutral and clear way. Some call this “holding a mirror”. Time is taken to observe the learning to date, the areas where it is easy to learn and the things that are harder and more challenging for the set. Edgar Schein describes this a group process work, working with the dynamic factors of the events and processes which occur during the life of the group. Action learning sets, like all groups, are not static but are changeable and the facilitator’s skill is in supporting the participants to develop skills that help them build on their effectiveness.
Each set is different too. What’s key is being aware of how different dynamics can shape a set, the personalities, the language, culture or position of each participant, whether they are totally engaged with the process or still unsure and reticent. An experienced facilitator will work carefully with each group to achieve clarity of purpose, wholehearted commitment, and an understanding of exactly how the process works in order to succeed. A little more than just sitting in a room, I think you’ll agree!
This article was first published on LinkedIn in January 2017
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