In a review I read recently of the book “To Obama with Love, Joy, Hate and Despair’ by Jeanne-Marie Laskas, there was an account of the impact the 10,000 letters and messages Obama received each day, as President. There were 50 staff members, 36 interns and 300 volunteers who read each one, and as well as recording and responding, they selected 10 a day for Obama to read each evening.
Obama talks about how those stories influenced him, and he also says “it probably connects to my early days of organising. Just going round and listening to people. Asking them about their lives and what was important to them… I learned in that process that if you listen hard enough, everybody’s got a sacred story, an organising story of who they are and what their place in the world is. And they are willing to share it with you if they feel you actually care about it”.
This is the essence of action learning. The bond that is created in an action learning set comes from the quality of listening, and the sense that the whole set is paying careful attention to the presenter’s story.
I frequently train new facilitators in our 3 day programme and of course the learning is experiential (how could it be otherwise for action learning?) The material we work with consists of the real life challenges that the participants bring. Each person of the 5 or 6 on the programme has the opportunity to facilitate a session and receive feedback on it, but is also required to offer an idea, challenge or aspiration, as the presenter.
I am often amazed at the depth of what people choose to share. There is an intimacy that has been created by our carefully constructed exercise in getting to know each other; there is a safety in talking to a bunch of strangers who you may never see again; there is an intensity to the group experience of doing action learning together for 3 days and there is the opportunity to tell your story and be heard.
All of these things, plus the quality of the questions and the care people show in their feedback, means that the presenter can make radical decisions that may influence the future course of their lives.
The impact of being heard
Participants on a programme sometimes choose to keep in touch with each other or to become a self facilitated set. Sometimes they let me know the action they took as a result and they often refer to their presentation and the impact it had if they return for a day to become accredited as an action learning facilitator.
As ever, I feel honoured to be in the room and to have created that space in which I am continually reminded of the power of action learning. Reading about Obama’s excellent letter reading habit caused me to reflect how rarely people feel truly heard.