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developed can surprise us if we are not expecting it: people feel more comfortable disclosing more. Sometimes the audio action

learning space can be more powerful, more intimate and more immediate. Te skilled facilitator will work to create an environment where, if emotions are intensified, it feels right and natural, and participants handle the situation with empathy. Strong emotions often accompany

major change and, as action learning practitioners, we should be aware of this. Te reasons for the disinhibition in expressing feelings may lie in the intense focus on listening and the

absence of other sensory stimuli which, as some practitioners note, serve to distract the listener rather than offer additional data.


Nancy Kline, in her book Time to think4

, refers to our imaginations being

‘ignited’ through deep listening. If this is true then we could be tempted to jump to conclusions and make assumptions as we listen intently to a group member describing an issue. H pointed out the risks: “With

voice-only action learning, I wonder how much of our encounter with the other person [the presenter of the issue] takes place in the imaginary and becomes partially our projection. We’re not encountering their actual physical energy, we’re encountering what’s transmitted in the voice.” If our imaginations are more

stimulated than they might be in a face-to-face situation, we need to, as group members and facilitators, be meticulous in checking understanding. For example, we may need to ask, “I understood you to mean x, is that right?” or, “When you said y, I think you were talking about your colleague, is that right?” Te speaker then has the

opportunity to reflect on what was said and the impact it had, to confirm that what’s been understood is indeed correct, or to re-articulate the message in a different way in order to get its true meaning across. When we are intently tuned-in

to the voice, we are likely to become aware of a whole range of emotions and reactions such as energy, doubt, resilience, anger, fear, anxiety, shame, optimism, acceptance, resistance, reluctance, confidence, affection, ambition and so on. If, as group members, we sense or notice an incongruity between the con- tent and the emotion of a presentation, then we also need to sensitively check that we have interpreted what we heard – or imagined we heard – correctly. For example, “I’m hearing

you describing this fantastic job opportunity you have the chance to take up, but I think I’m also hearing a reluctance in your voice. If I’m hearing correctly, what’s that about?” In offering this gently probing

question we are giving the presenter the chance to become fully aware of her own feelings and of her true rela- tionship to the issues she is exploring. Sometimes when, as presenters,

we are deeply focused on an issue, the combination of explicit feedback – this

You have to listen so much harder. Perhaps it’s the intimacy that draws us in

is what I’m hearing, sensing, noticing – and perceptive questioning is an effective way to change perspectives and open up new ways of thinking.

Reflective and effective

Audio-only action learning offers an intimate, deeply reflective, and effective learning space. Where the debate around the general concept of virtual action learning focuses on whether or not there should be a visual element, there is a danger of missing out on the power and intimacy of the voice, of concentrated listening, and of being listened to. Including visual elements, which

are often experienced as pixelated images of fellow participants (and oneself ), can be a distraction rather than an enhancement. Practitioners’ experiences suggest

that concentrating on the action learning element of the programme (rather than being dazzled by the latest technology), setting it up meticulously, and using skilled and experienced fa- cilitators are key factors for success.

John Heywood is chair of the Interna- tional Foundation for Action Learning and has been facilitating and partici- pating in virtual action learning since 2008. Contact him at john.heywood@

References 1 Adam Carroll-Smith, The pictures are better on the radio, Pitch Publishing Ltd, 2015

2 3 4 Nancy Kline, Time to think, Cassell, 2002

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