Action Learning – Effective Listening

Nancy B. Alston

Action learning provides a structured approach to making progress on difficult and sometimes emotive issues. Taking part in an action learning set can help improve skills vital to leading a business forward, namely:

Being objective and making decisions

Improving listening and questioning

Creating the climate for purposeful discussion

An action learning set normally numbers between 5 and 7, and at the start is facilitated to give the group a good foundation. Each member of the group gets a period of time to explain their issue, and then gets questioned by the rest of the group. Each member of the group can take a turn. A good set has trust between the members, a good set of ground rules that have been adopted, and individuals learn to ask the right questions so that another member of the group can make good progress.

They probably learn this from each other.

Action research is quite similar. Using similar questioning and listening techniques it may be possible to make progress on an issue that has been difficult to resolve. Again the key is asking the right question, and exposing yourself to an answer that may be uncomfortable.

Within action learning having the right sort of climate is important. Trust is key to this.
For instance if you were having a meeting and the following signals were given, how would you feel?

1.’I’m judging you’

2.’I’m in charge’

3.’I can manipulate you’

4.’I don’t give a damn about you’

5.’I’m superior to you’

6.’My mind is made up. Nothing you can say will alter it’

(Gibb, J, (1961). Defensive communication. Journal of Communication, 11, 141-148)

One of the problems of considering joining an action learning group is that it could be uncomfortable and public, at least with the other group members. Another Gibb (AA Gib, Enterprise Culture 1987), suggested that entrepreneurs focus on active learning and the opportunity (amongst other factors). An interesting debate is whether entrepreneurs have learnt these skills through experience, or possess them naturally as they are inquisitive.

If this is so – that suggests that good business people are able to create the climate in which they can learn from others.

Many small business owners find creating the right environment quite difficult, especially if it might involve some aspect of change on their behalf. This manifests itself in frustration, anger, submissiveness and fails to create the right climate. This in turn may expose them to making comfortable decisions and not succeeding in the way they would have liked.

Although many action learning sets are set up with the aid of a facilitator, the intention is for a set to be self sustaining. With no outside help.

This makes them very cheap, and an environment where you can learn some of the fundamental skills needed to be an effective businessman.

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