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  • Alan Sieler and Mark Raymond

Is This Our Greatest Challenge?

by Alan Sieler and Mark Raymond

In difficult times what was present in our life and was going well is no longer there. Important aspects of our existence (for example, security, love, choice) are no longer there as we experience significant loss. An example of this is the job losses we are currently seeing, which have obvious impact on the lives of people who will experience feelings of anger and/or self doubt coupled with the practical issues of what to do next. Job losses also affect those left in organisations who are required to get on with the job, often with different priorities, expectations and within different structures.

When we are hit hard by unexpected circumstances, knocked off balance or the rug pulled out from under us, we are faced with a challenge and choice, that being how we respond to the negative circumstances. It is a normal initial reaction to want to “vent” about the circumstances we are in. However, after this initial period, there is a basic twofold choice. We can (i) “mope”, complain, or be angry about how poorly done by we are or (ii) we can try to deal with the situation as best we can and move forward.

Moping and complaining means that we have given our selves over to the situation and surrendered our authority to circumstances, including the decisions and actions of others. In essence we are saying “I do not know how to move forward on this and I will not learn how to”.

However, even if we consciously choose to deal with the situation as best we can and seek to move forward, we may inadvertently block our selves, “spinning our wheels” or compounding our already unfortunate circumstances. The critical question to address is not why we would do that, but how do we do that.

One way of addressing the “how” is to approach it from the perspective of learning. Our society places a high premium on the value of learning, as we are encouraged to continually learn and to better ourselves. When faced with difficult circumstances it might be stating the obvious to say that the way forward is to take effective action. If we do not know how to do that then it is imperative to learn how to take the appropriate steps.

A critical issue that underpins effective action

There can be a more important and deeper issue to address if we are to be well positioned to take the appropriate steps and deal with being hit hard by change. This is the issue of being a learner. This does not mean our learning style, but rather refers to how open we are to looking at how open we are to learning and approaching new and often unfamiliar ways of understanding the world and approaching life.

Are we open as a person to being in unfamiliar circumstances, new ideas or new ways of doing things? If we don’t accept that we don’t know everything, or don’t accept that we could do things better, learning cannot happen. Learning comes when we start to question our existing knowledge or assumptions and open ourselves to the possibilities that something could be learned. This can be counter intuitive for successful people who may have had success because they have been firm in their opinions and have built an identify as having all of the answers.

The irony is that many enduringly successful and fulfilled people are both confident in their own knowledge, constantly curious about what they can learn and embrace new circumstances they find themselves in. When you start to view seemingly difficult situations as opportunities for personal learning and growth, you can you start to view these situations with different eyes, and take more effective action. It is suddenly OK not to have all of the answers.

To be a learner means acknowledging that others can be “teachers”, or sources of learning.

For senior managers, teachers might not be just mentors, but anyone in the organisation, most of all, their teams. An important question for a leader to ask is how open they are to receive feedback from their teams and how open they (not just pay lip service to) they are to new ways of doing things. To test this, how often do staff approach you out of their own initiative to give you feedback or suggest ideas for improvement? How often do you ask for feedback about your own performance?

Enemies and Allies of Learning

How each of us is as a learner inevitably shapes what we see to be possible to deal with the difficulties that confront us. One way of approaching how you are as a learner is to consider what unintentional blockages you have to learning. In the language of Ontology these blockages are referred to as Enemies of Learning. Our Enemies of Learning often occur as silent statements and judgements we make, along with unhelpful moods, and include such things as our:

  • inability to acknowledge our ignorance (arrogance);

  • unwillingness to allow others to teach us;

  • continual self doubt about our ability to learn and change;

  • being caught in moods of Resentment, Resignation and Anxiety; and

  • unwillingness to acknowledge the role of the body in learning. (All learning and change happens in the nervous system, so the body is inevitably involved in all learning)

It is important to note that the Enemies of Learning are not limited to individuals; they can also occur collectively and are an integral part of the culture of a group and an organisation, often as “unwritten ground rules”.

Observing and acknowledging Enemies of Learning is the first step in moving beyond them.

Another step is to identify and develop Allies of Learning. These include:

  • Humility, which enables declaring ignorance and granting authority to someone as a source of learning; biologist Humberto Maturana stated that learning commences when the student takes the hand of the teacher.

  • Courage, which allows us to be open to new and unfamiliar learning, as well as new and unfamiliar ways of learning.

  • Escaping negative moods to develop a constructive emotional frame of mind for learning to include curiosity, wonder, appropriate humour, lightness and playfulness; and determination to persist with challenging learning.

Being a learner is central to developing what The Dalai Lama calls a flexible or pliant mode of thinking.

“Life today is characterised by sudden, unexpected and sometimes violent change. A supple mind can help us reconcile the external changes going on all around us. It can also help us integrate all of our internal conflicts, inconsistencies, and ambivalence. Without cultivating a pliant mind, our outlook becomes brittle and our relationship to the world becomes characterised by fear. By adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life, we can maintain our composure even in the most restless and turbulent conditions. It is through our efforts to achieve a flexible mind that we can nurture the resiliency of the human spirit.”

How useful do you think it would be to do an audit of yourself, and perhaps also your work group or organisation? You may want to do the following:

  • On your own spend 10 minutes writing what you consider to be your Enemies of Learning and Allies of Learning (perhaps in two columns on the same page).

  • Find at least one other person whose opinions you respect and ask them to share what they consider to be your Enemies and Allies of Learning. Be mindful of not defending yourself against their views – simply listen and note down their thoughts. Sometimes when others’ opinions “sting” and we want to defend our selves they have hit an important nerve and perhaps our defensiveness is avoidance.

  • Identify important steps you will take to reduce the limitations of your Enemies of Learning and expand your Allies of Learning.

  • If you want to look at your work group or organisation take 10 minutes to write what you consider to be your Enemies of Learning and Allies of Learning.

  • Then include others in the group or organisation in the activity without being sidetracked by stories or justifications. Once the list is complete invite people to provide practical suggestions and make commitments to reducing the limitations of your Enemies of Learning and expanding your Allies of Learning.

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