Why bother with experiential learning?


December 1st, 2015

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Most people will have heard the adage of “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do, I understand…” but is it as simple as that? Is it just about making something memorable?

Let’s go back a step to why and how we develop leaders. For me, the point of developing leaders is not so much about giving them new information or skills, but about developing their quality of thinking and their capacity to be self-aware, self-directed learners. They learn how to learn; about themselves, others and the organisations they serve. This awareness is the bedrock of emotional intelligence too. That doesn’t mean to say that new models, theories or tools aren’t useful, but they are generally more usefully and flexibly applied if they are being utilized with consciousness and curiosity. If leaders aren’t engaging with learning at this level, then the likelihood is they will stay locked in their heads and continue to gather lots of information about effective leadership without ever having to really get to grips with what it means for them to be an effective leader. Lots of people can teach about models and theories, books can be read, speakers listened to, but supporting the developmental process, the increasing maturity, the being, isn’t easy or common.

Why not? Not every facilitator is comfortable or equipped to support this kind of development and because people are busy. Leaders are under pressure and this kind of work takes time and attention. It also requires a willingness to look at ourselves in a different way and question some of our everyday assumptions. Daniel Kahneman talks about systems 1 and 2 thinking. There is a great deal to be said for automatic, routine thinking of system 1 because we just don’t have the mental capacity to start from scratch in every situation. But if this is left unchecked, especially the more complex, uncertain and ambiguous situations leaders find themselves in, the more likely some ‘strong but wrong’ habits and patterns of thinking and behaving are to assert themselves.

experiential shutterstock_334777604This isn’t just confined to thinking though. It is about developing the ability to pay attention to all sorts of different sources of information. Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ explores how experts seem to use instinct, intuition or ‘gut feel’ to make split second decisions. This may on one level, simply be the automatic brain having got so good at pattern recognition, it doesn’t need to go through the conscious, language heavy bits of the brain…we just ‘know’. So how do we become expert leaders not just leaders who are experts?

So often leaders can see leadership as just an add on to their main job, a mantel they sometimes wear heavily. Being a professional leader isn’t necessarily as valued as it might be. That doesn’t mean to say that leaders don’t do anything other than lead, but there is a need to recognise and value leading as a practice, as something that merits time, attention and conscious exploration and development. Not just the odd course that may at best give some much needed support, challenge and reflection time, or at worst leave people with some interesting ‘tips’ and a sense of frustration and inadequacy at the lack of time they really have to pay attention to what matters to them.

What are the ‘practices’ that leaders have access to? So this is where experiential learning comes in, but not necessarily in the way you might think. So many people have taken Kolb’s learning cycle to mean taking in experiences cognitively and processing them the same way. To be fair to Kolb, he does talk about the affective, felt dimension as part of this taking in, but doesn’t really explore this much. We don’t necessarily need to do games, simulations or high ropes courses to learn from experience. Anything that gives us live data, in the here and now and not the ‘there and then’ is helpful. The main thing though is learning to be able pay attention in the moment, as well as after the fact or reflection in action as well as reflection on action.

That conscious awareness in the moment of sensations which may indicate emotions or intuitions, the tentative making sense of thoughts, impressions, feelings and holding of curiosity, even in the heat of a challenging conversation; that is learning in experience as well as from experience. This in the moment awareness allows for subtle adaptation, flexing of what is known to accommodate the ever unfolding present, and yet requires a clear sense of ‘self’, of what is true for me in this moment, without becoming dogmatic or rigid.

Some of the best ways to develop this capacity to learn continuously are working in regular support and challenge groups or action learning sets. They are great at helping to uncover and explore what habits and assumptions are colouring our thinking, feeling and relating. But so often what hasn’t been sufficiently developed is the ability to attend to the physical as ground for feeling and emotion, or intuition and other ways of knowing. The current upsurge in popularity of mindfulness speaks to some aspects of this, in that many are realising that their minds are running them, not the other way around; the servant has become the master.

There has been a gradual, but prolonged divorcing of the mind and the body, for probably several hundred years…personally I blame Descartes. To tie ‘Thinking’ with ‘Being’ divorced us from ourselves in a way that has been useful in some respects but profoundly damaging in others. We are mind and body and emotion and many would say spirit too (for those not of a spiritual or religious persuasion, spirit can be simply defined as that which animates). This is where somatic practices really come into their own, and I would include working with horses as a fundamental part of this.

As with so much of leadership development, it’s not the method of accessing this experiential data that’s important, it’s the skill of the facilitator in helping make sense of that data. That is what makes the difference between a fun but pointless activity and deep personal insight and growth.