Recently, I was on four-day My Home Life Leadership Facilitator training course. Their Leadership courses are a fantastic culture-change methodology for care home managers.
During one of the Action Learning exercises, we were asked to interview a person about an issue they were struggling with, without leading them or offering advice. In this brief, five-minute exercise, a third person was present as an observer. I was chosen to be the inquirer.
I was very fortunate to receive some Action Learning training from the great Barbara Johnson a few years ago. The principle of Action Learning, developed by the brilliant Reg Revans is that when given the chance, people find their own ways through their problems (ain't that the truth) and learn better as a result. There's more here if you are interested.
This philosophy certainly chimes with my life and work experience. Of course, it's always a massive struggle not to advise anyone, (as friends might attest!). I have had to work very hard to overcome my childhood maps growing up as the rebel on the outer edges of a large, highly vocal – and opinionated, family.
But while we were doing the exercise, for the first time I became aware of another issue. Gender. Whilst being the inquirer, I had asked the male respondent what the male observer in our triad described subsequently as "a killer question". However, he wondered why I hadn't followed it up further. At the time I posed the question, I knew intuitively that it might reveal a deep-and-meaningful answer, but it was true – I was definitely hesitant about asking more searching questions. What was stopping me?
On later reflection, I realised that this was part of my own life story, being brought up as a girl in a very old-fashioned culture where female education was hardly valued and my sister and I were expected to be both domestic goddesses (and skivvies) and models of bland charm and non-combative behaviour, always deferring to the men, despite them holding doors open and walking on the outside. Basically, it meant not challenging anything and shutting up. Having a career as a woman was hardly encouraged, however proud of our achievements our parents were.
Was it this unconscious deference to men that was at the root of my hesitation, I wondered? My question had subtly altered the dynamic between the respondent, the observer and me and brought back memories of our family's interactions when we were gathered together.
Had the other two participants been women, I wondered, would I have reacted differently? I always thought I felt fairly equal to most men, but perhaps I'm just kidding myself. It left me uncomfortable and ruminating on my inadvertent stereotyping of the men (neither of whom is anything like the men in my family), as well as myself. In the end, I think perhaps this was an unexpected and positive action learning experience all of my own.