This blog is based on extracts from a reflective learning log by Katherine Waumsley which she recently submitted for accreditation with the Institute of Leadership & Management after she trained as an action learning facilitator training with ALA. Katherine chose to use haiku – a Japanese poetry form -to illustrate her learning and has kindly agreed to let us share her fascinating log.
Part 1: Introduction
In order to reflect and present what I have learned through the action learning facilitator training, I have decided to use the form of haiku. Haiku is a well known Japanese poetry form, which generally uses only seventeen syllables, often in a 5 – 7- 5 arrangement. I suspect this is a vast oversimplification of the form, but what I like about haiku is the way they can perfectly crystallise a moment in time. Traditionally, haiku often include a seasonal reference, but here, I just try to point to a specific clear idea, moment or learning. One thing I love about haiku, is the way the limited syllables largely prevents the writer embellishing or pontificating too much. There is an honest clarity about this sort of creative writing which I also value in facilitation practice, so in this sense, it seemed to me to be an appropriate form to use in the reflective journal.
Haiku often sum up a specific place and time, they can contain a sense of concentrated attention which is also something which struck me in Action Learning: the facilitator and group members really need to be present, to be “with” the speaker (as well as noticing and “owning” their own responses). I remember one group member being given feedback that it would help for them to “keep their gaze in the room” – which was an example of that sort of focused attention on the group which seemed to be at the heart of effective facilitation. n fact learning this view of facilitation being “focused attention” has helped me to relax a bit in my own facilitation. Sometimes I would worry about what might happen or go wrong in a group, which could actually take me OUT of the moment. Now I am getting better at having the confidence that, so long as I have done my planning, my main job as a facilitator is to be present and I can trust my instincts on a situation a bit more.
So, in part 2 of this assignment, I’m going work with one haiku at a time, following each one with some further comments and examples on the subject.
Part 2: Haiku
This haiku is about double loop learning. I like the image of the green garden and “planting awareness” – it shows that real deep learning can really allow us to flourish and develop as people in a way that may not be prescribed or expected, but is still deeply fertile. During the facilitator training course we looked briefly at different learning styles. As some more pragmatic personality types (those with learning needs I sometimes miss, as they are so different from my own) may not value awareness alone as helpful, without a sense of an immediate practical outcome. So I think if I was to lead action learning, I need to find ways to express what the value is, so that these sorts of people can “buy in”. It was great to discover the phrase “double loop learning” – I felt that something about having such a definite term, might help learners who like theory to be open to this sort of deeper personal growth, I may also use the haiku above for this purpose.
In action learning terms, this is about Open Questions, and the way we aim to use our questions to allow someone to discover something, but, if we are not careful, we may instead just cover up their discovery by imposing our own angle on their struggle. In this sense it isn’t just about asking an open question, but also an open mind and the art of open listening.
During the facilitator training days, I particularly noticed that one of our group, smiled at lot when she facilitated. It was such a simple gesture of support, but I really noticed the positive message it sent out. Of course a smile has to be genuine to have this effect, but I thought it was worth considering as a simple and very human tool to use.
During the facilitator training, I was struck by the use of gentle challenges like “who has to do that?” “who thinks that?” to get underneath some of the entrenched positions we end up in. These challenges allowed us to speak personally and not let ourselves off the hook by using de-personalising comments like “everybody knows x” or “you have to stand up for yourself”. I hadn’t really come across this before, but I learned that a challenge can help us rethink statements like “you just can’t win with those folks” (which can often have a sort of “case closed” effect) to admitting the personal which might be more like “I feel overpowered and hopeless – like I can’t win” – which can offer some more fertile ground for progress. However I also was aware that we have to be careful and only challenge when there is enough safety, which leads on to the next Haiku:
This is about “presenter power”: any genuine presenter is making her/himself a little vulnerable by letting the group into their thoughts and responses to the issue. This meant that safety and trust are crucial to the success of action Learning, and some of the mechanisms to create enough safety are: extended introductions, setting the contract with the group, and the facilitator role. However, even with this in place, we still need to remember the presenter has the right to “not go there” if they choose not to. I think this is very relevant to a community music context, as I always feel that we are asking people to take a risk and give something of themselves every time they participate in music. This is because they are putting something of themselves into the music, in front of others, and they can be left feeling very exposed or vulnerable to criticism. The line “whether you see it or not”, is there to remind me, that even those who seem very extroverted or sure of themselves, when they feel they are opening up in some way, we always have to respect their vulnerability. As I am a rather quiet person, I sometimes assume that more outgoing people are more confident or robust, emotionally, so it was good to be reminded to be sensitive to their vulnerabilities, too.
“Being fully here” is mostly referring to the role of the facilitator, but could also describe every member of a set which is functioning well. Partly the haiku refers to the idea of being fully present, in the moment. With “not denied, invisible” it also touches on the idea of “appropriate self disclosure” which was covered in the course manual, as well as practiced on the ground in the training days. I noticed the benefits of this appropriate self disclosure, particularly during the “extended introductions” section, when the facilitator of the course participated in the “Origins – Influences – What Matters to Me Now” exercise. I was struck by the honesty of the facilitator’s story, and this gave me confidence to share mine. But I also noticed that although the information she gave us about herself was personal and helped us get to know her, it was obviously also safe and appropriate for the facilitator, she could handle it herself without feeling too exposed, which led to honesty and trust amongst the group. The facilitator was showing that she was human too. I have thought about this quite a lot, as in my facilitation I am often keen to “get myself out of the way” – to not let my own ego or my needs interrupt the process, which I still want, of course, but I have realised that as I AM there as a person in the dynamic, and that giving a bit of myself can be helpful for a group too. I am often concerned that I might be “too vulnerable” – but I have realised that this is not a black and white thing. I can chose how much to reveal in terms of what helps the groups as well as what is safe for me with any particular group.
I am a big fan of silence. I often wish there were more times of group silence in my life, and I can resent the tiresome nature of words, at times, the anxiety of thinking what to say, and then words often seeming inadequate. In some previous facilitation training there were long periods of group silence, which I railed against and finally embraced. I began to lose the urge to fill the space with words, and I learned to listen deeper.
What was new for me, with action learning, was to start to discern or question the quality of a silence. For example, during some sets, there was too much time left for clarifying questions, which meant that there was an unproductive silence which was best moved on by the facilitator, otherwise people started trying to fill the space with other things which weren’t needed. However, during open questions, there was often a real fruitful, helpful silence, which helped the presenter and was almost like a gift from the group. In my facilitation following the course, I have started to sometimes ask about the silence – e.g. if I ask for feedback and there is silence, I might then ask if this is people needing time to think, or just if no-one wants to say anything at the moment. I have also become a bit more confident about going around a group and asking for feedback one by one, whilst also accepting that some participants will either need more time or not want to say anything. Before I sometimes felt this was like bullying – putting someone on the spot where they feel they need to say something which might not be genuine. Now I can prepare a group for this – e.g. with some folk in Mental Health settings, who may be shy to speak up or are not used to being asked what they think, I might chose to let them know that I will ask them all one by one, so they get a chance, but also that they don’t have to say anything. This seems much preferable to an awkward sort of silence or the feeling that I am pressuring people to speak.
Part 3: Conclusion
It feels hard to conclude this journal in a satisfying way, as so much of this feels like fragments of an ongoing work. I am sure in another year or so, the content would be different again. But, for the sake of a final thought – one strong memory, which has stuck with me, from the course , was when we went into a side room to discuss ideal facilitator attributes and one my colleagues, when asked what he thought of the list, said “it just all seems sort of super human”.
At the time it felt like a bit of a ball from left field, but the more I considered it, I think there is such a valuable point there: anyone who believed they could do ALL those things, ALL the time, would be either superhuman, or a little deluded. And so I think that although it’s really helpful to know what to aim for, it’s also helpful for me to accept and consider my weaknesses, as a facilitator. Or perhaps it’s not as simple as “weaknesses” but more, what variables are there, and what effect do my own energies etc. have, on my facilitation? What extra help or thought do I need to give myself?
Perhaps it’s just important to recognise that side of ourselves that is with us but also struggling to get on track. For me, this is part of a life-long work of integrating and accepting different parts of my personality. Perhaps, even in the role of facilitator, there is a balance to be gained between the optimism of the one who sees how to help and the compassion of the one who feels the reality of the helplessness:
Katherine Waumsley is a community musician working for Good Vibrations a charity which develops life and work skills for prisoners, patients in secure hospitals, ex-prisoners and others in the community through the use of music