The devil’s in the detail: how does virtual action learning work so well?

Like at least one of my colleagues, I didn’t initially feel that convinced when offered the opportunity to experience virtual action learning by completing ALA’s virtual action learning facilitation training.  From past experiences of telephone sessions in other work contexts, I remembered feeling hampered by the lack of visual cues and the more subtle sounds that are available in face-to-face work.  The prospect of being stuck in front of the computer screen, ears squashed into headphones, for several hours at a stretch didn’t exactly excite me either.  I was, however, willing to try out the process and see what value it could add to my practice.

Needless to say I was proven wrong. 

Having the visual frame stripped away bore unexpected fruits, some of which may be difficult to convey as they are attempts to describe inner experiences.  Others are more clearly one facilitator’s view of the practical nuts-and-bolts aspects that have made virtual action learning work as well as it does for her.

I experienced not seeing and not being seen as a gift of freedom – freedom to move if I needed to, freedom from any hint of self-consciousness that might be present in face-to-face work.  Freedom to listen in a more focused, concentrated way, and form a different kind of inward connection with myself.  With the need to focus visually removed, more space is available to listen attentively to one’s own responses as well as to the others in the group.

Not being seen meant we were free to take and use notes throughout, whether as presenter, participant or facilitator.  As a presenter, I was able to sketch a few notes beforehand to prepare for a possible presentation – which meant I made better use of my space.  As a participant, scribbling notes whilst listening enabled me to stay focused and take in and hold the information in a fuller way than through listening alone; I was also able to write down possible open questions as they occurred for possible later use.  As a facilitator, I was able to refer to my outline notes of the session structure as little or as often as I liked, without having to be concerned that this might distract others in the group.  I also found that writing notes as a facilitator helped me hold the dual roles of facilitator (holding the overall process) and participant (asking good open questions) with more ease, skill and confidence.

Although silences could in principle be more disconcerting in a virtual setting – lacking visual cues that help us perceive what is happening – our silences were pauses for deepening, listening, waiting for things to emerge, just as powerfully as in face-to-face work.

The final surprise?  Simply that I had enjoyed the process.  The connections we began forging from the first session of the training, being engaged with the listening and the sharing, made any awareness of squashed ears fade into the background, and the three hours passed quickly.

With more experience over time, including a recent piece of work running introductory training sessions in VAL with an international aid agency working to fight world poverty, I’ve come to appreciate even more about it. There has been something wondrous about being able to share the action learning process despite being a group spread over several countries on three continents.  Even despite challenges with internet connections and potential language barriers, participants on the introductory training reported their relief at being able to share their difficulties and be supported to explore new possibilities.  The medium wasn’t perfect by any means – but to even be able to arrange such sessions at all face-to-face would have taken days of travel and great expense.  These introductory sessions enabled staff at a similar level within the organisation, but who were based in different countries, realise they were not alone with some of the issues and challenges they face.  The relief and renewed energy felt by the participants was palpable even from thousands of miles away.

Just as many pivotal moments that characterise a good action learning session such as ‘What I’m starting to realise as I speak is….’ or ‘That’s a really good question’ (followed by a long pause) happen in virtual action learning and they are wonderful moments to witness, especially gratifying when these are training participants just starting to grasp what the action learning process is about.

The facilitator’s tone of voice and voice quality are even more important in virtual action learning, as a relaxed manner and occasional sense of humour are all conveyed through the ether and support the facilitation just as much, if not more so, than in face-to-face AL.  Being more mindful of my sense of humour as an asset in such settings has made facilitating even more of a pleasure.

Finally, an unexpected bonus is that gaining more experience in virtual action learning has increased my confidence enough to offer telephone and virtual media for therapy clients in my other work.  My online facilitation skills have generally improved – a difference I’ve been particularly aware of when convening groups virtually where participants with little experience in virtual communication tools have needed guidance and support.

So if you think virtual action learning isn’t for you – it might be worth a try.

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