Action Learning

by Steve Roche

Skills involved in Action Learning

Action Learning works best when people bring relevant skills to the set. This is not a way of working that appeals to everyone. Some people find they cannot adapt to it and they leave the set.

Skills that are helpful

Listening Skills and Questioning Skills are of prime importance. Being a member of a set will certainly enhance these skills.

It will be easier for the facilitator to work with a set if each person has a certain level of openness and interpersonal skills.

Technical expertise and a wider understanding of business/organisational politics can also help the set to operate more effectively.

However, an Action Learning Set can work with almost any group where there is goodwill, a commitment to learn and experiment and some willingness to be open. When setting up a set, look for members who have qualities or experience, such as:

  • Empathy
  • Self-awareness
  • Group work
  • Personal development courses
  • Counselling or consulting skills
  • Mentoring or coaching experience
  • Facilitator training and experience.

Skills likely to be developed

The set is also a place where people can develop the relevant skills. Sometimes this is part of the brief of the set.

As problem holder:

  • Asking for and being able to receive help, advice, assistance, feedback and challenge
  • Staying in charge of your time, your problem and your learning
  • Resilience, perseverance, proactivity and self-belief.

As set member:

  • Gaining understanding of other people’s models of the world (how they see the world, how they think it works, their personal learnings and assumptions)
  • Empathy, listening, questioning, challenging, supporting...

As facilitator:

  • Understanding learning processes in individuals, groups and organisations
  • Understanding organisational politics
  • The ability to summarise and draw the big picture.

Communication skills in Action Learning

Ideally, some members will bring to the set a high level of communication skills, giving others scope for acquiring and developing some of these skills.

  • Rapport skills help to create the safety that allows an appropriate level of challenge.
  • Interventions are enriched by conversational change techniques and language skills, such as reframing.
  • The set supports people in developing an understanding of the differing models of the world that people use.

The Action Learning process encourages empathy by thoroughly exploring the problem space. The problem holder feels acknowledged. The process of ensuring that feelings are examined and outcomes clarified, before moving on, often makes it relatively simple to identify actions and next steps.

Set members offer constructive interventions by putting themselves in the position of the problem holder rather than ‘mind reading’. People realise that everybody is different: what may be an easy action for one person may not be so easy for another.

Part of the process of an Action Learning Set also requires the problem holder to put themselves in the position of a detached observer in order to distance themselves from the problem space and the emotions. This distance, or dissociation, allows new perspectives on the problem.


Someone locked inside a problem is unable to see any solution. They have imposed boundaries around themselves and the problem. They cannot see a solution because it is outside these boundaries.

Reframing interventions can give them the concept of something other than the problem – which may allow them to break out of the boundaries.