Using different models in an action learning set – pros and cons

The recent ALF (Action Learning for Facilitators) event was its usual high quality gathering.  Designed by Anne Layzell and Geoffrey Wolfson and led by Anne Layzell, the purpose of the day was to explore different models and techniques used within action learning.

ALF days follow a standard format with proposition and discussion in the morning and work in action learning sets in the afternoon. The framework for this discussion comprised four questions (devised by Anne and Geoffrey):

Is anything (i.e. any models or techniques) off-limits and, if they are, why are they?

  • What are the benefits or introducing models and techniques (to the ‘pure’ or ‘classic’ model)?
  • What are the reasons against?
  • Does the sort of facilitator you are colour your answers to the above questions?

We split into small groups of four or five to discuss the questions.  My group decided very little was off-limits but that facilitators should take care not to create situations where facilitator and presenter (issue holder) become engaged in one to one dialogues to the prolonged exclusion of the other set members.

The benefits of using models and techniques seemed numerous.  Very generally, the introduction of appropriate models – bringing the right model for the right situation – would be a thoughtful and skilful response.  What’s happening in the set, in the here and now: the facilitator would be ‘reading the emotional landscape’ and responding to what he or she saw and sensed.  Models, we decided, could change the set dynamic, the energy level and the perspective.  We concluded that, as facilitators, we have an educative role in the set but that this needs to be carefully balanced with the notion of ‘putting yourself to one side’.

Reasons against introducing models included the feeling that where a set is fairly new to action learning, it may be much easier for them to follow a model than to listen actively and search oneself for the questions that will help a presenter get to the nub of his or her issue.  If this is the case, the new set may choose to use this model all the time at the expense of further developing the core action learning skills of active listening, questioning and giving and receiving feedback. Erik de Haan’s ‘gossip’ model (sometimes called ‘sitting out’) is a good example here.  Following questions, the presenter sits outside of the circle and within earshot and listens to the set discussing what they’ve heard and what they themselves might do in a similar situation.  Where sets get stuck and become frustrated this is a great way to unblock the process but it does not develop the core skills as effectively as ‘classic’ action learning.

Pondering the fourth question, I had less of an ‘ah-ha’ moment and more of a ‘uh-oh, I’ve been rumbled’ moment.  I have absolute trust in the classic action learning process but I do like models and techniques and experimenting.  I admit I like to try out new things, push some boundaries, and see what happens.  Note to self: don’t forget to check in with self before introducing a new model or technique.   Ask “…for who’s benefit is this and is it fully in the service of the presenter and the set?”

Thanks to Anne and Geoffrey for an excellent CPD day, for good and skilful company… and for my uh-oh moment.




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