Reflections on an Action Learning Intervention

In my previous post I described an action learning intervention undertaken by Dr. Rod Waddington to overcome a toxic workplace within the education sector in South Africa.   What I would like to do now is share some reflections on this discussion.

Action learning intervention – overcoming narcissism

If we look at narcissistic managers, we can readily see that the underpinning values of such a manager are in direct opposition to those of action learning – the former involves destruction of agency, abuse, divisiveness, exclusiveness, resistance to ideas from managers and staff and an autocratic style of management.  Action learning, in contrast, involves increased agency,  mutual respect, collaboration, inclusiveness, openness to ideas from managers and staff and a participative style of management.

While the narcissistic manager creates divisiveness through blaming, favouritism and exclusiveness, action learning overcomes this “divide and conquer” approach through the power of collaboration built through mutual respect and inclusiveness.

The contrast in values described above reinforces the need to undertake an organisation intervention designed to embed a new set of values.  In the action learning intervention discussed previously, the participant managers undertook a “values advocacy campaign” – designed to replace the existing demeaning value set with values that enrich the working environment and nurture engagement, creativity and commitment.

Agency and responsibility

In an earlier discussion, I emphasised how agency supports mental health by giving people a sense of control over their work environment and how their work is done.  In a toxic environment, agency is destroyed through micromanagement and the pursuit of control over managers and their staff. Action learning, on the other hand, builds agency 

However, when you enable agency, managers have to take up the responsibility that goes with it and this requires conscious effort to build managerial confidence.  Action learning is one way to do this.  Evaluations of action learning programs consistently demonstrate that managers grow in confidence about their authority and their capacity to exercise their responsibility and to be accountable.

In the action learning intervention discussed previously managers moved from a state of helplessness to being more assertive and proactive – thus demonstrating their increased sense of responsibility and empowerment.

In these reflections, I have focused on the need to address the differences in values between action learning and narcissistic managers who create a toxic environment.  In the next post, I will explore how mindful meditation could be integrated into the action learning intervention to grow mindfulness and enhance the outcomes from the organisational intervention.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Ippicture on Pixabay

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Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

In a previous post, I discussed how action learning and mindfulness can be mutually reinforcing in terms of building self-awareness.  With action learning, the catalyst for self-awareness and redefinition of self and role are the external challenges that confront the limitations of your own sense of self.  For mindfulness, the pursuit of awareness leads to the exploration of your own thoughts and emotions in everyday life and particularly in relationships and interactions.

Reflection in action learning moves from the outside to the inside, while reflection in mindfulness moves from the inside to the outside.  Hence, action learning and mindfulness are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

In this post, I want to explore how action learning and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing in relation to development of the art of reflection.

Reflection

Reflection is a process of exploring our understandings and feelings we have identified as part of a review of our actions and their outcomes, intended and unintended, or a process of exploring both our understandings and feelings that we are experiencing during the course of some action or inaction.

Donald Schön (1983), author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, argues that reflection defines the professional and he differentiates between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, the former occurring after we have taken some action, the latter involving reflection in the course of taking action.

Reflection-on-action

Reflection-on-action is often referred to as “reflective practice” which can be defined in the following way:

Reflective practice occurs when you explore an experience you have had to identify what happened, and what your role in the experience was – including your behaviour and thinking, and related emotions.

We reflect on our experiences to understand what we and others have contributed to a situation and its outcomes, so that we can improve our contribution and the outcomes in future situations.

Mindfulness prepares us for the reflective practice involved in action learning.  If we are mindful, we are more aware of our environment, our thoughts, emotions and actions.  Hence, we are more present to the situation and better able to notice and recall what transpired when we planned and took action.  This leads to a clearer perception of our role in the planning and action.  We also have a clearer understanding of what happened, consequences intended and unintended, and why those occurred.

Mindfulness also builds self-management so that we are better able to reflect on what transpired because our reflections are not clouded by unresolved feelings or distorted recall that is influenced by “confirmatory bias” – in other words, we can avoid “reading into’ an experience an assumption that we confirm by selectively revisiting what happened.  Without effective self-management, we can delude ourselves that our reflections on our experiences are accurate when, in fact, they are clouded by our biased perceptions and assumptions (some of which we have developed to protect our self-esteem).

Mindfulness, then helps us to better reflect on action because we are more present when we undertake the action.  We are more tuned to our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – more perceptive as a result.  Our recollection of what happened, both in terms of ourselves and others, is more accurate because we are more aware when the action is taking place and less biased when reflecting on what took place.

Reflection-in-action

Donald Schön (1983) describes reflection-in-action as a process whereby we stop ourselves in the course of taking action and change our approach to improve our outcomes:

The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (p.68)

Mindfulness also makes us better able to reflect-in-action because we are more aware of ourselves and our environment.  It can help us to stop and reflect in the course of planning or taking action based on our plans (or actions taken spontaneously or reactively).

Our improved self-management achieved through mindfulness helps us to retain our balance while taking action and gives us the capacity to effectively manage negative triggers.

Mindfulness, Action Learning and Reflection

Mindfulness enriches both reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action, while action learning acts as a catalyst to mindful reflection on our actions and their consequences.  We need to be mindful to be able to reflect-in-action – being present with full awareness.  So mindfulness and action learning enrich each other.  The more we practice reflection on our actions, the more we are able to spontaneously reflect-in-action.

Action learning typically involves working, and reflecting, in a group so that we can be open to “supportive challenge” by others in the group, resulting in challenge to our assumptions and perspectives.  Adelle Bish and Bob Dick, in their conference paper, Reflection for everyone, highlight the fact that reflection in an action learning context can be “seen as having two dimensions, one individual and intrapersonal and the other interpersonal and interactive” (p.11).  These different dimensions are considered to “reinforce and build on each other” (p.12)  Mindfulness enhances the individual/ intrapersonal dimension by virtue of the distinct personal benefits that accrue through mindfulness practice, and also enhances interpersonal relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness, our awareness of ourselves, our interactions and our environment grow and enable us to engage more effectively in action learning – we become more perceptive, more present, more creative and bring calmness and clarity to the situation.  Mindfulness and action learning, acting in concert, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of pasja1000  on Pixabay

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Creativity Lies in Stillness and Silence

In 2015, GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland) displayed 200 visual works of David Lynch including lithographs, photos, paintings, video art and photo collages.   David epitomises creativity – he is an American  filmmaker, artist, actor, musician and photographer and is considered by The Guardian to be “the most important Director of this era”.

The creative power of silence

In an interview on ABC Radio National in March 2015, David spoke about creative control and in the course of his interview, he stated that “the silence within has infinite dynamism”.   In his view, creative ideas come from within.   You start with an intention to develop an idea and then, if you are patient and focused, you suddenly see it and feel it as it reaches full consciousness.  He discusses open awareness (for instance, focusing attention on the beauty of a cherry tree) that stimulates wonder and the incessant desire to understand your world.

Jane Dawson in an article on reflection and creativity, contends that creative expression is thwarted by the busyness of life, especially in educational institutions.  She argues for the need for  “space for silence” to cultivate and pursue creativity and suggests that meditation provides that space.

The creative power of stillness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his 2011 interview with Krista Tippett, maintains that “spaciousness is already in the mind”.  The way to access this spaciousness that is the fountain of creativity is to develop intimacy with it – to be open to its power through the stillness of meditation.

Jon argues that one of the real barriers to developing creativity is our lack of training in the “deep interior capacities” of attention and awareness.  He argues that all our training is focused on thinking, so that we cut ourselves off from imagination and creativity by focusing on only one aspect of the mind’s capacities.   Whereas the real gateway to creativity is “the stillness of awareness of not knowing” – of being aware of what we do not know and what we do not understand.  Creativity is not achieved by being contented with the knowledge that we already hold.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and openness to our life and our world, we can cultivate the power of silence and stillness to access our innate imagination and creativity.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of jplenio on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Levels of Meditation

Noah Levine, discussed different levels of meditation during his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit.  His topic was, Breaking the Addiction to Our Minds.

Noah identified three levels of meditation – (1) foundational – focus on breathing and grounding in the body, (2) second level – awareness of pain/suffering/attachment, (3) third level – overcoming the addiction to our minds.

He led listeners through a 10-minute meditation practice that was focused on the foundational level – mindful breathing.   This was an excellent meditation with skilful guidance.

Noah made the point that while there is no ideal amount of time for a meditation practice, starting somewhere in terms of time allocation is really important. He suggested that twenty minutes could be a starting point to realise some of the reinforcing benefits of meditation.  However, his strong recommendation is to aim for 45 minutes as a goal to attain because, in his experience, significant shifts/movements can occur in the last 10 minutes of this extended meditation period.

He cautions against expecting quick results and major shifts in the early stages:

Mindfulness is a gradual, systematic training that through our own efforts lead to these insights [about the impermanence of everything] and transformative wisdom [that recognises our addiction to our minds].

Noah points out too that addiction to our minds is different from other addictions such as addiction to smoking, drugs or food.  As he explained from his own experience, many addictions can be overcome through abstinence – but this is not true of addiction to the mind and thinking.  Like breathing, thinking occurs independent of us and is an essential part of our human existence.  The problem arises when we allow our mind, our thoughts, to control our lives without the highly developed skill of discernment.

A particular insight that Noah offered is that reflection – reviewing, evaluating, planning – is not mindfulness.  For me, as an action learning practitioner and teacher, reflection is integral to my daily way of life, whether it is concerning how I play tennis, conduct a workshop or engage another person in conversation.  Reflection is still an act of (critical) thinking, which – though necessary to life and professional practice – is not mindfulness.

I think a key learning from Noah’s presentation is that we grow in mindfulness gradually as we develop our meditation practice to the point where we are able to overcome addiction to our minds and the process of thinking.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Writing: A Pathway to Mindfulness

Albert Flynn DeSilver has written a book titled, Awakening through Writing:  The Space Between the Words, as a wake-up call to the power of writing as a means for exploring our inner landscape.

In an interview with Tami Simon, Albert identified some of the key messages in his book and I want to reflect on them here.

Time as a Construct

The concept of time is a human invention to enable us to communicate, collaborate and manage our lives singularly and collectively.  We need this agreed convention to be able to function in our world (and across the world).

However, own own sense of time – “I don’t have enough time”, “there are not enough hours in the day” – is a personal construction.  It is a consequence of choices that we make – the kind and level of work we choose to do, our commitment to the quantity and quality of our work, our family structure and established norms and rituals, and how we choose to spend our leisure or “left-over” hours.  It is a reflection of our prioritising, our sense of self-esteem and empowerment (“my time is not my own”), our goals in life, our need for recognition, our willingness and ability to negotiate “time” to meet our own needs.

When we discussed what you are going to do with the surplus in your life, we highlighted the need to create space in your life.  Albert reminds us that to realise the benefits of writing and meditation in terms of being able to achieve awakening or to grow in mindfulness, we need to look at the way we spend or “expend” our time.  We have to “make time” to engage in writing and meditation on a regular basis.

Assess your motivation – why write?

If your writing is aligned with your personal goals and values, you have a better chance of sustaining the effort through the ups and downs of life and the writing cycle.

I have to constantly remind myself why I write so regularly.  I’ve found that having multiple reasons for writing (some primary, others secondary) enables me to maintain the momentum.  So I have reflected on my motivation and identified the following:

  • to keep mindfulness at the forefront of what I am thinking about and doing
  • to use writing as a journey in self-exploration
  • to learn more about mindfulness and mindful practices
  • to engage my mind in learning new things
  • to share what I learn with others so that they can better handle life stresses and overcome the negative impact of depression and anxiety
  • to integrate what I have learned from my various roles in life – as a student, manager, trainer, educator & consultant
  • to help myself and others realise our creative potential
  • to better understand what I can contribute to creating a better world.

I used to say to my doctoral students, “Do your research on something that you are passionate about, otherwise you will not be able to sustain the effort through the vicissitudes of daily life”.  The same applies here if you are going to write on a regular basis, you need to be passionate about the topic and the audience.  The motivation has to come from you – not from what other people say you should write about.

Reading

Many of the great writers were great readers and this is often reflected in their books or novels.  You will often see writers quote poetry or the works of other authors to reinforce a point or introduce a new idea.

Reading can become a source of personal reflection, offer new perspectives on an issue, illustrate key ideas or points through life stories or act as a stimulus to your own writing.  I would include here podcasts and videos as a source of ideas.

I find that if I am stuck for a topic to write about or for something to say on a topic, I will read an article/ report that is relevant, watch a video or listen to a podcast as a way to stimulate my own thoughts and reflections.

Discipline

Albert stresses the importance of discipline to advance your writing and insights.  He points out that most great writers have a routine that fits their own lifestyle and personal work style.

You need to develop your own writing routine that will enable you to sustain the effort of writing.  Great writers often warn about not just writing when “you are in the mood”, but pushing through the emotional barrier in a disciplined way by sticking to your routine, even if ideas are not flowing.

It may sound trite, but the reality is to become a great writer, you need to write…write…write.

The immersive element

If you are able to persist with researching and writing about a topic or an area of interest, you gain the benefits of immersion – you see connections that you did not see before, you deepen your knowledge and understanding of yourself and the world around you, you improve your self-management (via discipline & insight) and you are better able to make a significant, original contribution.

You also gr0w in mindfulness and your capacity to be fully present to what is happening in your life and world.   Albert maintained, in his interview, that to make the commitment to develop mindfulness through writing requires courage:

I think for people to look inside, and to pause, and to really show up and be present in the world takes a tremendous amount of courage. And it seems to be more rare than ever, which is alarming. That’s why I’m so devoted to this work. Because I want to keep reminding people this is the most important thing we can do as human beings. Without changing consciousness and awareness, and having that positive influence, we’re really going to be kind of screwed as a species.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay

What Sets You Off? – Managing Negative Triggers

There are many things in life that can trigger a negative reaction in us.  What triggers you, may have no effect on me.  A part of mindfulness practice is getting to know our triggers and working out ways to manage our negative responses.

As we learn about our triggers and better understand them, we are able to manage our reponses more effectively.  So one way to grow in mindfulness is to identify your triggers and use a process to help you deal with them mindfully.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) teaches a way to manage triggers, called SBNRR, as part of their mindful leadership program.  The steps in this process are as follows:

STOP – stop yourself from reacting automatically

BREATHE – take a deep breath to relax yourself and help you to manage your reaction

NOTICE – notice your bodily sensations, see what is going on in your body (e.g. becoming red faced, tightening of your muscles, strong sense of unease and agitation)

REFLECT – think about what is going on for you, what is triggering this reaction in you.  Go beyond the words and think about what you are perceiving (e.g. are you interpreting the words as criticism and do you have a sensitivity to criticism?).

RESPOND – now that you are more aware of what is going on for you, choose an appropriate response that does not aggravate you, your friend/colleague or the situation.

The SBNRR processs is a great way to improve your self-management, a key element in emotional intelligence.  When you first start to use this technique, you might have to rely on reflection after the event – “What could I have done differently?”

However, as you grow in mindfulness, you will be able to reflect-in-action and stop youself from the outset.  In this way, you can better manage your response to the triggers that would normally set off a negative reaction in you.

Image Source: Courtesy of Robin Higgins on Pixabay

Reflection and the Art of Solving Jigsaw Puzzles

Our family has had a long-standing tradition of solving a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle whenever we go away on holidays for more than a week.

The collaborative endeavour of solving the jigsaw puzzle has a relaxing effect, builds relationships and facilitates conversation.

Recently, my wife and I went on a holiday and in line with our family tradition purchased a 1,000 word WASJIG? jigsaw puzzle. These puzzles are particularly difficult because the image on the box depicts the present scenario – the jigsaw puzzle itself reflects the same scenario at some future time.  So the image you are provided with is just a guide – and sometimes intentionally misleading.

When solving the jigsaw puzzle, it was particularly important to challenge your own assumptions – to change your assumptions about shape, colour or location of a puzzle piece (or sometimes, all three aspects).  Often when you got stuck, the way forward was to challenge one or more of your assumptions.  This challenge to assumptions was particularly aided by the reflections of the other person, e.g.”Could that piece go at the top, rather than the bottom”; “This looks like becoming a car, not a shop”; “There seems to be a crowd outside the train, have you thought of that to explain the missing pieces?; “Could those two connected pieces be placed vertically rather than horizontally?; “I think that we should sort the last 100 pieces by shape rather than by colour as we have them now.”

The reality is that we have limited perception – we often see what we want to see and often fail to see what is in front of us.  We also experience perceptual bias based on our own life experiences.  So it is important to reflect with others, to be open to perceptions and perspectives of other people, if we are going to move forward in whatever endeavour we are undertaking.

How often have you worked on a jigsaw puzzle and been unable to find a particular piece and someone walks past and says “this piece looks like it should fill the gap” (and they may have had no prior involvement in the puzzle solving process).  They are able to see the puzzle with fresh eyes and have no preconceived ideas or assumptions.

I was reflecting on our processes for solving this jigsaw puzzle and was reminded of the words of Reg Revans, the father of action learning, who suggested that really effective reflection requires challenging our own assumptions.  He also maintained that this challenge to our assumptions was achieved more often by reflecting with one or more others.  He suggests that when we reflect alone we can often reinforce our existing assumptions – when we reflect with others our assumptions can be open to the challenge of others.

The process of reflection has a strong relationship to mindfulness.  As we build our ability to reflect, we become more aware of the need to be mindful in the situation as an aid to reflection (e.g. “If only I had really noticed her reaction at the time, I could have done something about it!”).  It is difficult to reflect on what you have said or done, if you lack awareness at the time.  In a similar way, when we become more mindful through mindfulness practices, we are better able to reflect-in-action, to reflect on our own words and actions while we are in the process of saying and doing.  So, in the final analysis, reflection and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com