Over the coming weeks I am going to be looking back a little bit on my blog, looking back so that I can share a story with you. When this story is complete it will hopefully give you a flavour of how I got to where I am, and how I come to be doing the work I am doing right now. Here’s the first instalment:
It was the summer of 2007 and the weight of my job as a Charity Director was having an impact on my state of mind and I suspect also on my health. I know I am working too hard. It feels unsustainable but somehow there is no one else to do things. I am like some kind of crazy martyr who behaves like it has to be me that does things. Or perhaps I am secretly arrogant enough to think that I alone am super woman. I can’t quite decide which.
I have taught myself how to do most things that happen in the office and so even when my Assistant Director (the only other member of staff) leaves and we can’t afford to replace him, I soldier on alone until we can afford a part-time admin person and a fundraiser.
‘Soldiering on’ is like my way of living and breathing. It’s all I need to get by.
At some point in the midst of this I begin to realise that perhaps I am losing it and maybe I can’t do this all alone. Perhaps I need some advice from someone who has walked this way before. Up turns a mentor called Bernie who had previous in the Charity Director stakes. I don’t actually admit to him the details of how much I am trying to do with exactly what resources though I do give him a general sketch of the way things are rather “me heavy”!
I like Bernie and instinctively trust his judgment. He’s the kind of guy I can drink coffee with for two or three hours and forget what else I am supposed to do.
Bernie recommends Action Learning. I don’t know what else to do, so I sign up for Action Learning.
The first day I find myself hating the idea of it. There are eight of us in a room. All people who apparently have senior roles in organisations. Most of us have never done this before and so there is an edge of trepidation in the room with us too.
The facilitator explains that in this new world of action learning, when someone describes a challenge they are facing, you aren’t meant to give them advice. Instead you are supposed to be content to listen and ask them what she calls ‘open questions’.
Giving advice and telling people what I think they should do is my modus operandi. I think it is helpful. I find myself wondering what on earth I will do instead.
There is a strict structure to the process too. And I don’t like the idea of that either. What is wrong with free flow, free thinking, taking life the way it comes?
I feel like giving up already but the facilitator lady asks us to think about whether or not we would like to work on a challenge or issue we are facing.
I immediately say I’m not ‘ready’ to do that today. Actually I don’t want to. Ever. This was a stupid idea after all and I’m not sure why Bernie is so keen on it. I promise myself I will watch what happens next and figure out everything that is wrong with Action Learning.
But I am surprised. The people who are brave enough to work that day seem to get a lot out of it. And so when we met again six weeks later I agree to try it out for myself.
I share a current predicament in my work.
And the process amazes me. It is the first time I really understand in my bones the idea that structure can bring freedom.
That in the simple yet precise process of Action Learning I am being offered a container that actually creates greater freedom to express myself. Until now all that structure brings freedom stuff was all A-level philosophical theory to me rather than something I had real experience of.
I talk about all the problems I am facing at work – and they aren’t allowed to interrupt me or tell me what they think or what they would do. It is such a relief.
I realise how much I have been listening to what other people think without even noticing. And how much I change what I say in response to how I think they are reacting.
Then when the other group members begin to ask questions I see that there are other ways I could see and approach things. Approaches I had never thought of. Most of all I begin to see what I mental bind I have myself in. I think I am the only one who could solve the problems that the organisation I am leading is facing, but I am letting myself and the rest of my life down as a result.
After the session, I am waiting at a bus stop nearby and it occurs to me for the first time in a very long time that perhaps my life could be different. Perhaps if I thought a little bit differently, I could act differently and things might shift. Perhaps it is genuinely is possible to change things in my world.
I am now an accredited Action Learning Facilitator and use Action Learning in The Birthing Circle process. I will be opening up more ways to do action learning with me in the coming months. To make sure you hear about it join my mailing list below:
In memory of Bernie Trude. Some of the content of this Blog post was originally published as part of a download previously available on this site called ‘Finding Your Way Home’.