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Action Learning Set – My Experience

13th Mar 2013
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I had the pleasure of being invited to an existing Action Learning Set yesterday to experience and understand more about what is involved.

An Action Learning Set is:

“a group of peers who meet together to create an environment which enables them to present issues, gain a new perspective on them, explore options and plan for action”

“A challenge and support group”

I would define it as “individual coaching within a support group”

The Process

The general process is really very simple, after an update from each member on what’s been happening since the last meeting each member then has the opportunity to bid for time.  I.e. share a brief synopsis of their issue to the set. This issue should ideally be something that the member isn’t able to discuss elsewhere. Once everyone has presented an initial issue a decision is made by the group on which presentations (maximum of 2 per meeting) will be heard.  Some members may feel their issue needs covering whereas others can choose not to push for their issue. I found that during this bidding round I wanted to hear the problems of others and help them so I withdrew from the bidding process.

All of the topics shared are completely confidential and not to be shared with anyone outside of the group or even discussed afterwards, unless a member mentions their issue to you first.

Presentation

Once agreed the Presenter describes his or her challenge, issue or even opportunity.  They can use visual materials and are given time to talk without any questions. The set then asks questions to clarify and explore the issue further. The aim is avoid leading, forced or multiple questions, advice giving and personal opinions.  Note-taking is forbidden except by or for the presenter if they require it.

Approximately 30 to 40 minutes was spent on this stage. Listening to someone else describe their problems reminded me of coaching sessions I’ve held recently. Perhaps in respect of it being my first time combined with my willingness to always help others I was keen to ensure that I only asked questions that helped the presenter create their own solution.

At this point the benefits of having a group or set of people became clear.   With a presenter and four people to ask questions we came up with different questions which shared the common goal of helping the presenter solve their issue. A couple of my colleagues asked questions I never would have asked and that, for me, is the big difference to one to one coaching. I also found that as I knew there were other people there to ask questions I hesitated before asking any questions in case they wanted to. They were also doing the same. This longer silence gave the presenter more time to think about their issue and on a couple of times they began talking again.

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Lessons

At this time two light bulbs went off in my head which I will use when coaching others:

  1. Not asking a question straight away gives the presenter more time to think about their issues.
  2. Stop focusing on what my next question might be and listen intently and then pause, think about what has just been said, and ask a question relevant to that.

The second point was a result of me thinking of a question and then someone else asking a different question.  Then, through listening to the presenter I was able to recognise that either my question had been answered or wasn’t relevant anymore.   I think if I was taking notes this would have been different.

The other learning piece I can take away was a greater understanding about the power of silence – this gave the presenter more time to think and clear their thoughts.

A group facilitator is there to keep the session focused and on time.   The session flowed naturally onto action plan which the presenter is free to determine in their own way, which is handy for reflectors who might need more time to digest the discussion before committing to a course of action.

End of the activity

Finally the process is reviewed, so the set members individually (but within the group) give feedback to the presenter i.e. helpful observations not advice, tell what they learnt from the process.  The presenter then gives feedback to the set e.g. the quality of the questions, pace etc.  And then anything else they have learnt.

Finally the facilitator provides feedback to the set before ending with each member highlighting what they will take away from the session.

Conclusions

Listening to feedback from each member is really useful as it’s nice to know when someone has the same thoughts as you and it’s even better to understand what others are thinking and their viewpoint on what happened as it gave me different angles which I hadn’t considered.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time within the session and I can see the power of coming together as a group with the common aim of wanting to help fellow members resolve issues and challenges, so they can leave with a positive mind-set and an action plan.

I’d like to thank the members of the Action Learning Set for allowing me to share this experience with them;

Sue Johnson, Gerry Murphy, Max Jones, Mandy Hetherton, Marianne Ecker

Blake Henegan.  Director of Optimus Learning Services

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