I have been facilitating action learning sets for over ten years and remain as passionate about action learning as the day I first encountered it – in 1999 in a set facilitated by Sonja Antell, now Director of Action Learning Associates.
My experience was powerful partly because I am someone who loves process and I observed how the action learning process provides boundaries, safety, space and creativity to explore ‘stuff. Also at that time I was in a role where I felt quite vulnerable and isolated within a large organisation and the action learning space enabled that vulnerability to be revealed and explored.
In all the sets I have facilitated since I am interested in the ways set members reveal their vulnerabilities and the way that the action learning process, and therefore the set, can honour that.
Some years ago I came across an article by Alfred Baker (who was a friend of action learning pioneer Reg Revans) in which he refers to a number of conversations with Reg. In one the action learning space is described as
“the fathomless intimacy of the set” This has stayed with me and I shared the article with the set that I have been a part of for over seven years. This set, given its shared history and hours of working together, most definitely feels the place where I can be vulnerable.
More recently I have been reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly; how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. (There is a wonderful TED talk by Brené about shame which is where I came across her work and this spurred me to buy her book.)
The book explores a series of myths, one of which is “vulnerability is letting it all hang out” and it was here that the connections to being in an action learning set stood out for me.
She says “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure and it’s not celebrity style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust building process…… Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust and disengagement.”
Brené then goes on to talk about trust and there is a wonderful line, “Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention and full engagement.” Doesn’t this describe so well the way that trust is built up in an action learning set?
Being in an action learning set is being in a space;
- with a contract, explicitly stated and signed up to
- with very clear boundaries, particularly about the conversation that stays in the set and that which must not go outside of the set
- with a clear structure that helps informed disclosure. (At ALA we use an introductory exercise that invites set members to share information about themselves in a safe way that almost fast-tracks the set to insights and understanding about that person and builds connection by commonly revealing some of the universals that we share as human beings, e.g. the importance of love and family, the challenge of finding fulfilment in work)
- with a clear offer to share the things we find difficult at a pace of our choosing
- with the potential to connect with set members (as Reg Revans described, “comrades in adversity”) and for those connections to enhance us and our work
- with the possibility that as we work with our fellow set members, being engaged and full of good intent, that trust can develop and that through the growing trust we are able to be more vulnerable.
In Brené’s chapter ‘Disruptive Engagement; daring to dehumanize education and work’ there is a wonderful quote from Gay Gaddis the American owner and founder of The Think Tank, she says:
“When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity”.
Action learning is about creating space to uncover opportunity, the opportunity to do something different and vulnerability is a key element in creating that opportunity.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead –, Brené Brown, Gotham, September 2012