Category Archives: Blog

Profound applications of action learning

willow-buttercups-smlAs well as facilitating action learning I am a humanist celebrant and conduct a number of funerals every month.  I didn’t anticipate there being a connection between the two roles but what I’ve found is that action learning’s style of questioning is so helpful in drawing out the story of somebody’s life from family members who are often feeling fragile and chaotic in the midst of bereavement.  I find it helps me to keep myself out of the picture and focus entirely on eliciting from the family what they really want said about their loved one. I then have everything I need to write the funeral script.


One of the fundamental elements of the action learning process is the use of open questioning techniques.  Open questions begin with words such as: what, why, how, who, describe.  They are designed to make the respondent think and reflect so they give you opinions and feelings.  Action learning set members ask open questions which help the presenter of an issue come to a deeper or different understanding and so be open to new solutions, attitudes and behaviour changes.

Pauline Gladstone

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Do you really listen to what other people are saying? by guest blogger Judith Cross

Judith Cross

Judith Cross, Clore Social Leadership Fellow

When did you last stop thinking about: things that were bothering you; how busy you are; things you had forgotten to do and still needed to do; where you were going next; who was going to pick up the kids from school; what you were having for dinner; and really listen?

When did you last really pay attention to what someone was saying without thinking halfway through their sentence how you would be responding and letting your mind wander?

When did someone last really listen, and I mean really listen to what you were saying?

When did someone, anyone, last give you time and space to think things through; support you to develop your ideas; and allow silence

We live in a world where our lives are lived at such a fast pace, always on the go, always thinking ‘what next?’

We may think we listen to what people to say to us but this takes training, it takes time, and it is exhausting.  Focusing on another person and not thinking about ourselves really does tire you out.  People focusing on you and really paying attention, and working for your best interests, tires you out too.  Listening is an underrated skill but the outcome from doing it right can be extremely powerful.

Recently I went on a three day training course run by Action Learning Associates to develop my skills as a facilitator of action learning sets.

Action Learning is like having a peer network challenging your thought processes, allowing you to think differently about an issue, idea or something that has been on your mind.

It’s a small group of people who come together to share how they are feeling, leaving what’s going on at the door, turning phones off, paying attention and working with you to develop solutions and possible actions.

A group is made up of between four to eight people and can be people from one organisation; many organisations; working in the same field; or not.

The space is confidential and trusted. It is a safe space to explore. It is a new way of learning.

Every member of the group can put forward something they wish to explore. This doesn’t have to be work related. They then bid to present further on what they’ve put forward. The person presenting goes into a little bit more detail and the rest of the group can ask clarifying questions.

Then comes the hard bit.

Once clarifying questions have been asked, the group asks the presenter only open questions to support them to work through the issue, idea or topic they would like to discuss further.

It’s surprising how difficult it is not to try and offer advice, not to offer your own thoughts on the subject, not to reflect on what you would do, and not to lead someone towards your way of thinking.  It’s hard also to ask a really good open question that allows the presenter to see things from a different angle and to work things through.

It is hard, but is achievable and definitely worthwhile.

The facilitator of the group will log any actions. The presenter and the rest of the group don’t take any notes, meaning the focus stays with the presenter and there are no distractions.

Once the set comes to an end naturally or the agreed time for the presentation is up, the each person in the group has the chance to reflect back to the presenter what they thought of the presentation and what came out of it including how it made them feel.

It sounds simple and you’d think it easy.  In a way it is, but it takes time and being both the presenter and a set member to fully understand and see the benefits of action learning.

I have been part of an action learning set myself for over a year now and we meet every two months.  We have just started self facilitating now we are all clear on the process, committing time to getting together and putting aside everything else happening in our lives.

I have also been part of another set whilst training and have now had the opportunity to facilitate a new set.  This has been a great success and despite my nervousness in wanting to ‘sell’ action learning to a new group, after one day, and two presentations the process sold itself.

I can’t stress enough how much you can get out of this process and how much you can learn about yourself and others.

Even if you don’t feel action learning is for you, make an effort to start really listening and paying attention. It really does make a difference.


Judith Cross is a Clore Social Leadership Fellow (2013) and an independent consultant focusing on staff development, strategic planning and project management in third sector organisations. Judith is also in the early stages of setting up a social enterprise called ‘Grab a Grandparent’ having recently won Millennium Care award funding from UnLtd. Grab a Grandparent seeks to reduce social isolation and loneliness in older people by connecting them with individuals and families in a lasting and meaningful way. Judith’s blog was first published in her leadership blog judecross1980 in March 2014.



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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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