Some years ago, when I was a novice action learning facilitator, I worked with a conscripted action learning set. Some people just didn’t want to be there – they felt they were being punished in some way – and some, while more open, tended to keep their distance. One person in particular, G, found many arguments why following an action learning process or sticking to action learning principles just wasn’t for ‘them’. She spoke on behalf of everyone – whether they liked it or not.
G found it difficult to reflect quietly or listen to others’ contributions. She felt it was ‘…like watching paint dry…’ and that ‘…there’s a danger in over-analysing these situations…’ I never asked her what danger she imagined.
When the presenter paused before answering a question, G stepped in and answered it for him. G wanted to give him advice: she knew the answer to his problem. What was the point of waiting for him to get to the solution she already had?
I found listening to the presenter’s story difficult because of G’s serial interruptions, her behaviour and my own resulting anxiety as the facilitator. I also felt very angry that a process I valued so highly was being treated with such disrespect.
In reviewing process at the end of the set I asked the presenter what he thought would have been different if we’d gone straight to advice as G had wanted. He said he believed the questioning had prompted him to think things through much more clearly and he thought that this justified the process. Other set members added that they had learned a great deal from the presentation and may not have learnt anything if we’d jumped straight to advice.
In my inexperience I didn’t know how to deal with G’s behaviour and therefore did not intervene effectively.
Thinking back to that situation now I would stop the process as G interrupted, say what I see happening and ask the presenter what effect G’s behaviour was having on him or her. We can then analyse the situation and start to resolve it as a group. I would also ask what G needs in order to be able to contribute effectively and in accordance with the ‘rules of the game’.
Other options for action might be:
• think carefully before taking on a conscripted set – if they really don’t want to be there there may not be much you can do however good a facilitator you are
• in your introduction to action learning bring up the potential problem with the group – if one of us is not sticking to our contract or to the action learning principles, what will we do? How will we handle it?
• if all else fails, we may need to recognise that action learning is just not for G…. and that’s OK.