Category Archives: Blog

Facilitator training July 2014 – never the same river twice

RiverFacilitating an action learning set – for real – is at the heart of our training course for facilitators.  Just as the best way to understand action learning is by doing it, so too the best way to understand the challenges and opportunities of being a facilitator is also by doing it.  Although we cover some key theory on the course, and also help participants to consider how they will put use their skills in their individual contexts, most of the course time is spent facilitating action learning, with each person taking a turn to facilitate.  It’s an intensive experience – participants have come together to learn how to facilitate, and at the same time, they are working as a temporary action learning set.

When I ran a facilitator training course last month, with six participants from very diverse backgrounds, I was struck by how  this intensive, repeated experience of action learning operates on different levels.  There is learning about the skills of facilitation, but there is also learning about being in an action learning set – both as an issue-holder and as a supporter.  We noticed over the three days how much more skilful participants were becoming as set members, as well as honing their facilitation skills.  By the end of the course, the quality of questioning had deepened, with more probing and challenging questions, and the group was working more effectively together.

How did this happen?  Simply, by reflecting each time someone facilitated and sharing our thoughts.  We asked what had worked well and what could have been done differently; we reviewed those moments which had puzzled or surprised us; and each person received rich feedback on how they had facilitated the set.  Although there was repetition of the process, the content was always different.  As the saying goes: “you can never step in the same river twice”.  Or, as one participant commented at the end of the course: “I have to admit that when I saw that we were going to do seven action learning sets, I thought that by the end I’d be bored… but the reality was that each of them was so educational”.  For me, each time I run a course, it reaffirms that the process of practising, reflecting, and having dialogue with open-minded people is, quite simply, an enormous pleasure. If you think you might enjoy it too, why not find out more about our open action learning facilitator training courses? 

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Capturing the learning journey – accreditation for action learning facilitators


A creative approach to one person’s learning journey as captured in her reflective learning log

Recently I had the great opportunity to run a day to accredit six people who had attended our three day open action learning facilitator training course.  The accreditation day brings together people to reflect on their learning and explore their development since training to be action learning facilitators.

It is exciting to spend the day with newly experienced action learning facilitators and to hear how they are using their skills in a range of settings and diverse applications. A key theme that emerged was confidence – many people expressed an initial degree of uncertainty about running their own sets.  All had powerful experiences of sticking to the classic model using open questions, getting presenters to reflect on open questions and decide their own actions. As a result trust in the process was really high.  Action learning is a process that needs to be experienced rather than taught – both for those in action learning sets and those learning to facilitate.

Participants gaining accreditation spend time between the course and their chosen accreditation day completing individual learning logs to chart their development.  Whilst this suits some more than others, everyone commented on the reflective nature of their log – capturing their learning as it happens reinforced for them both the depth and the nature of their own learning journey.   Some newly trained facilitators also use their reflective writing as a personal development and evaluation tool.


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

1741The 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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The keys to successful self-facilitation in action learning

ALSOne of the major benefits of action learning is that an action learning set is able to continue without a facilitator once members have mastered the action learning process.  Many sets we work with – whether in-house or as part of a peer network programme – continue in this way.  Self facilitation allows them to build longer term peer development networks of real benefit to themselves and at low cost.

Interestingly Reg Revans had no place for facilitators and wrote always of the power of the set working together.

“The Primacy of the Set…..small and stable set of comrades in adversity, regularly disciplining themselves in their observations and their analyses, more realistically appraising and more sensitively applying the limitless stores of their own lived experience” (more…)

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Meeting facilitation challenges using mindfulness

LeafGroup facilitation is a real skill especially given the variety and the depth of responses that can occur within groups.  As experienced facilitators we have all been faced with occasional unexpected conflict or moments when core values were threatened.  How best can we meet the challenges we face as facilitators?  ALA believes using mindfulness techniques can help improve facilitation skills and provide a useful resource to help tackle challenging situations.  That’s why we have developed a one day CPD workshop which offers facilitators an experiential introduction to incorporating mindfulness techniques into their practice. (more…)

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Action Learning: a treat – by guest blogger Zoe Briggs

Theatrecraft 2013 at The Royal Opera HouseAs a theatre professional in London, I struggle to find time to reflect on my work. The pace of life both in and out of the office demands constant progress: doing rather than reflecting. Our emails, project work, meetings and phone calls keep us on our toes and don’t always leave space for much else. That’s why being part of an Action Learning set, established by A New Direction as part of the Cultural Education Progression Network, is such a treat.

In practice, Action Learning makes time and space for considered reflection on our workplace challenges. Once every six weeks, I meet up with industry peers and a facilitator in an airy flat in Bermondsey, to do just that. It’s a day that is kept apart from the ordinary working week: there are no interruptions and we leave at the door whatever pressures are troubling us at the office. I applied to be part of it because I wanted to meet new people from across the sector, and forge new connections and partnerships. I work in Creative Learning at the Ambassador Theatre Group, and bring a commercial perspective to our conversations – and I value learning about my peers’ experiences in subsidised organisations. But I have discovered a far greater benefit from Action Learning than I expected, particularly relating to my own personal development. (more…)

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Reflections of an active listener – by guest blogger Njoki Yaxley, 2014 Clore Social Fellow

Njoki YaxleyI’ve just got back from another exhilarating session of my first full day within the Action Learning Set on Tuesday.  The term ‘Action Learning’ sounds like another new fandangled management speak type of word that is meant to instill fear in the hearts of those who aren’t in the know!  However, I can assure you as the sort of person who likes plain and simple things – it is far from it.

At its heart is the theory and practice of sincerely listening without interruption, with respect and sympathy for the person to whom you are listening. (more…)

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And now for something completely different – an action learning moment

Haiku all

(with apologies to any experienced sailors out there if the metaphors aren’t completely accurate)

Above are several attempts, mostly haiku poems, to capture and convey the quality of a particular moment during the virtual action learning facilitation training I was undergoing at the time.  This moment came during a presentation on the final day of training, when our virtual set had had time to mature and we had gotten to know more about each other.  I can of course only describe my experience of it, but it was whilst we were asking open questions of the presenter and beginning to follow the same line of questioning, as if together we’d understood without having to say so explicitly that we had our collective finger on the pulse of where the session was going. (more…)

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Developing “criticality” in action learning


John Heywood, ALA Associate and Chair of IFAL

As Chair of the International Foundation of Action Learning (IFAL) I recently attended a fascinating event about Critical Action Learning (CAL) led by Professor Kiran Trehan.  As always at IFAL events, we were offered a wonderful opportunity to challenge and question our practice as action learning facilitators

Mike Pedler says that the application of ‘critical theory’ is designed to ‘help the action learner stand outside the prevailing social or organisational situation in order to see how it could be different and changed for the better’.  CAL stresses the need for critical questioning and exposure of power relations within groups, of surfacing and understanding complex emotions and unconscious processes.  It suggests that, in order to do this, there may need to be a more active facilitation role.


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Bringing action learning to salespeople

Picture1One of the things I most enjoy about action learning is training other facilitators.  Working with participants for three full days offers a rich and immersive experience.  As each person takes their turn to facilitate, it’s exciting to see them build their understanding of action learning and increase their confidence.  And there’s a further depth of learning when participants opt for accreditation, which involves keeping a reflective log, and meeting again after a few months for a review. (more…)

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