Using a Case Study to learn the Mutual Learning Model

I’m currently focussed on improving my own skills around the Mutual Learning model (‘model II’ from Argyris & Schon’s Theory of Action). In order to do this, I’ve been using a Left Hand Right Hand Case Study approach, one of the key learning tools. In the interest of being open and sharing my experience with others, I wanted to highlight some of my recent reflections. I’m doing this to help me with my learning and to invite others to share their views on the approach and my goals.

Creating a Left Hand Column / Right Hand Column Case Study

The Left Hand Right Hand Case Study approach is a very simple tool.  In order describe what it is I’ll go through how I created mine.

I started by describing the situation and what I was trying to achieve in the situation. In my case, I’d had a conversation with someone from another organisation about my experiences of trying to discover if there was a potential to work together in future. I was unclear about the status of the discussions and had some concerns about how the situation had developed and wanted to talk to someone I knew from that organisation about the situation.

The next step is to create two columns. I started with the right hand column, which is “what was said” written like a script. I did this using my memory of the conversation (the conversation had happened a couple of weeks earlier. Many people worry about ‘if it will work’ when using a remembered conversation. The answer is yes). I put it aside for a week or so, before filling in the left hand column, “what I thought, but did not say”. I was pretty surprised when started filling that column in as it highlighted the gap between how I think I act and how I actually act (espoused theory and theory in use in Argyris’ theory) then put it aside for another couple of days because I found it quite confronting and I wanted to let myself ‘calm down’ and come back to it with a fresh mind.

Here’s a fictitious example similar to what mine looked like:

What I thought but did not say What was said
I think that this group have mucked me around. Let’s see if I can prove my case. Me: Hi Bob, have you got a minute for a quick chat?
Bob: [up beat] Sure!
I think they treated me badly and don’t even realise it. I’m going to show them. Me: I wanted to check out what was happening in terms of us working together. I caught up with your colleague the other day and they told me something that didn’t match my expectations [I briefly illustrated] and I felt mucked around!
Bob:[More serious] What they said was right.
What?! It looks like he agrees with his colleague. I can’t believe that! I need to show him that his view is wrong. Me: [Raising my voice and speaking quicker] Well there’s no way that what I was told was reasonable … 

[further justification of my position, point/counter-point discussion and a muted resolution when the conversation was ended by an interruption]

The next step was to reflect on what the case study had surfaced. I did this by answering the following kinds of questions:

  • What was my intent with this conversation? How effective was the conversation at achieving my intent? How effectively did I communicate my intent?
  • How effectively did I balance advocacy and inquiry?
  • What was my ‘frame’ of the conversation, how did I view myself, the other person and the task I was trying to accomplish?
  • What was I hiding from the other person, what was undiscussable and what prevented me from making it discussable?

I wasn’t expecting that I’d discover as many things about how I think and act as I did.  Here’s what I came up with as I reflected:

  • I wasn’t clear on my own intent. When I looked back over the conversation I realised that I’d entered the conversation without a clear understanding of what I wanted to achieve. From what I’d said I inferred that my goal was “to get the other person to make me feel better about the situation by agreeing with my view of the world”. Realising this gave me some insight into how it might have come across to the other person. If I wasn’t clear on it, what chance did they have of understanding me? Their difficulty may have been compounded by the fact that I didn’t express any tentativeness in my world view, in fact, the opposite is true!
  • There was no balance of advocacy and inquiry. In terms of balancing advocacy (explaining how I saw and felt about the situation) and inquiry (asking about their view of the world) I was poor. I discovered that I had asked only three questions and two of them were rhetorical! At the same time, I’d made around 27 statements in a 10 minute conversation. I was unaware that the conversation was this unbalanced whilst I was having it.
  • The goals I was trying to achieve were unilaterally controlling, fixed and hidden. I wanted the other person to see my view of the world and to agree with my position that they were wrong. I had no intention of changing my mind to accommodate their point of view. But I didn’t state any of these reasons as I was worried about how they might feel, and I didn’t tell them that I was hiding my intent because I was worried about their reaction. Although I say it was because I was worried about them, the fact that I didn’t test my beliefs meant that it was actually self-protective.
  • Without intending to, I created conditions I didn’t want. The case study helped me see more of how I acted from the other person’s point of view. The evidence I saw was that I lured them into a conversation where I was asking them to admit that I was right and they were wrong. When I told them about my point of view, I often used high-level judgements like “you acted weirdly!” without demonstrating any observable things they said or did that led me to that belief. I thought I was being open with them, but I can see how they might have felt accused and threatened (there was evidence for this in the kinds of responses they made and the fact that the conversation felt like a ‘tussle’). So, my behaviour may have inadvertently created exactly the conditions I wanted to avoid.
  • I wasn’t able to express myself as effectively as I thought I was. The conversation on paper highlighted there were many times when I used a kind of short-hand to describe my points, but in a way that, on reflection, was unclear or rife with potential points of confusion.

How did I feel after this?

On an intellectual level I found the case study interesting to do because it showed how unaware I was of how I actually acted. It was useful to realise that my framing of the situation (I’m right, they’re wrong / misguided, I have to convince them of my view) may have contributed to acting in the way I did (this gave me hope that maybe I could learn more about how I could be more effective in future).

On an emotional level, I felt pretty embarrassed (“How could I have acted like this without being aware of it? What if others knew I acted like this – in a way that I would not espouse?”), defensive (“I still believe that they were mostly responsible for the situation!”) and even a bit dejected (“How much more am I unaware of? It took me days to realise how blind I was to my involvement in the situation, and I produced all of these responses without even thinking about them, how am I ever going to learn to act differently? Is it even possible to learn a different way of thinking/acting?”).

Reflection is often improved by doing it with others

Reflecting is hard cognitive and emotional work. I had given myself some ‘rest days’ between filling in the case study to make it easier for me to reflect without getting emotionally engaged (I believe it’s a similar effect where it’s easy to spot things in other people’s behaviour, but it’s hard to spot it in ourselves when we are acting). It was interesting to me how each time I came back to look at the conversation I realised that I was able to reflect with more detachment, but I was still pretty attached to my view of the world being right! To help me further, I sent the case study to another person who reviewed it and provided some comments before a meeting where we discussed it.

The review comments were pretty confronting. I was secretly hoping that they might evaluate me positively and agree that the problem was the other person, but their comments highlighted how my behaviour may have had a lot more to do with the other person’s response than I was aware of / wanted to admit. The reviewer highlighted things such as:

  • I was stuck on advocacy. There wasn’t a single example of genuine inquiry from me into the other person’s view (which he stated at least three times in the conversation, but I never acknowledged).
  • I was hiding information. I was hiding a lot of useful information in my left hand column which would have been useful to find ways of sharing (and leaked out in the way I was treating the other person anyway)
  • I wasn’t Illustrating evaluations and judgements. When I was advocating (sharing my view of the world) I was using high level evaluations (“I was mucked around”) without explaining the data I used to come to that conclusion. In Argyris’ model, I was advocating from a high rung on the Ladder of Inference without describing the ‘lower rungs’ that lead me to my conclusion. Doing this may have contributed to the other person being defensive or feeling attacked (I used some pretty extreme emotive words!).
  • I was using ‘gimmicks’. I was using phrases and approaches associated with a Mutual Learning mindset but designed to achieve the goals of a Unilateral Control mindset (model I in Argyris’ approach).  I was using my knowledge of the Mutual Learning model (model II) to ‘win’ (a goal of the Unilateral Control model, model I). It was curious that I was using my knowledge of the Mutual Learning model to accuse the other person of acting in a way that was consistent with the Unilateral Control model, and I was blind to the irony that doing this demonstrated that I was acting in a way consistent with the Unilateral Control model (e.g. trying to win)!
  • I was punishing them for being wrong. Rather than testing if they shared my view, or being open to learning more about theirs, I was pushing them to admit they were wrong, and more than that, wrong for being wrong. I was in full righteous mode (at one point they even agreed with me that the way they acted had been unclear, but I didn’t listen to it because I was so focussed on ‘letting them have it’!)

Conversations with the reviewer

The conversation with the reviewer was very helpful. He wanted to check how I’d reacted to the case and his feedback and share the point that most people feel pretty embarrassed when confronted with what they find. There were several points I got out:

  • It’s important to take responsibility for identifying what triggered my behaviour. Understanding the triggers allows me then to be aware of what might be about to happen, and to ‘create a buffer’ where I can pause my natural response (usually to react to the other person by attacking or to withdraw by becoming passive aggressive) and act differently. The reviewer shared that this is what Argyris’ Model II / Mutual Learning model is all about – providing another ‘degree of freedom’ in choosing how to act (rather than trying to ‘be Model II all the time’)
  • The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool to help learning how to act differently. It was useful to realise that if I just state a high level evaluation without illustrating the data that I used (‘rung 1′) and the culturally meaning I applied (‘rung 2′) it could lead to the other person reacting defensively. Also, ‘staying low on the Ladder of Inference’ means that there is less likelihood that the other person will be confused, and ‘working slowly up the ladder’ helps more easily identify where the points of confusion/departure are.
  • Advocating effectively is a skill which takes practice. The conversation with the reviewer helped me practice being clearer about what I was advocating. At some times I was able to do this, at other times I found this very difficult and stumbled or spoke for too long. It was confronting to realise that this would take more practice.
  • Use the concept of binds, dilemmas or paradoxes to surface things that are undiscussable. I was worried about sharing that I had some concerns about whether I would be a compatible fit with the other group, but I didn’t want to raise this issue because I was worried that they would react negatively to it (“why would we want to work with you if you hold a negative belief about us?”). We spoke about how I could raise this in the form of a bind and ask for assistance from the other person (“I’m in a bind. On the one hand, I’d like to work with you. On the other hand, I’ve had a few experiences, which I could describe, which I’ve found confusing. I’d like your help to go through these experiences and check my understanding. Would you be interested in that?”) .
  • My own competitiveness is not helping me learn. For better or worse, I’m often quite competitive with myself and other people (this is something I observe in how I think and act, rather than something I’d espouse to others!). My initial reaction when seeing the gap between how I think I act (espoused theory) and how I actually behave (theory-in-use) I wanted to close it as quickly as possible as I found it deeply uncomfortable. However, the pressure to overcome it quickly sets me up for failure, which makes me less likely to practice.
  • My attitude to failure is not helping me learn. When confronted with feedback that I’m not as effective as I’d hope (e.g. demonstrating no examples of inquiry) I kind of collapse and go into a bit of a ‘doom zoom’. The problem with this approach is it means I find it harder to focus on learning to practice new behaviours that will help me be different in future.
  • Improving skills is a matter of practice and that means failing (a lot). In order to improve my skills I need to do lots of practice (Argyris compares learning Model II to learning to play tennis. It would be unreasonable to think a few books and a lecture on tennis would be enough to learn how to play – you need to actually hit some balls). Similarly learning more effective ways to handle difficult conversations and learn will require ‘hitting a few balls’ and trying behaviours that ‘fail’ in order to reflect and learn.
  • Changing how I frame the situation is useful. It was useful to reframe how I saw the discussion to think more about the fact I only have a partial view of the situation (self), that the other person may see parts I don’t (other) and the task of the conversation is to try and learn more about the situation together (task). It’s a challenge, in the heat of a difficult situation, to delay the natural tendency to attack / respond, and replace it with a ‘buffer’ around being curious about the other person’s perspective.

Where am I now?

I found the experience very useful. I’m now more humble about the scale of the task of learning a new set of skills and developing a different mindset. I’m grateful for having more insight into how I may have inadvertently been creating the conditions that I didn’t want. I’ve been able to try out some new skills in a few low-key conversations recently and I’ve been practicing watching for moments where I get ‘emotionally hooked’ and trying to work out what caused it. These experiences have been very rewarding.

I’ve also noticed that I’m less angry when I see others acting in a unilaterally controlling way (getting angry or punishing people for acting the same way I frequently/mostly do isn’t fair). My mindset is shifting from an evangelical one (Argyris’ model is great! Everyone needs it! I need to go out and evangelise!) to more of a reflective one (I really like it, and find it useful myself so I’m going to use it and model it. I’d like more opportunities to practice it. I’d welcome talking to others, if they are interested). And mostly, I’m still struggling. I’d like to be better sooner, with less effort and fewer embarrassing failures and I’m aware of the paradox that those expectations are probably making is slower and harder!.

I’d welcome comments, feedback or questions. If you’d like to go through a case study, please contact me.

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About Benjamin Mitchell

Hi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

4 responses to “Using a Case Study to learn the Mutual Learning Model”

  1. Huperniketes says :

    For the readers of your blog who have not read Theory of Action, would you please briefly define its purpose and what the Mutual Learning Model is claimed to offer?

    This would help us to determine if you’re onto something which we also could use or if you’ve signed up with a cult. ;-)

    • benjaminmitchell says :

      I appreciate the feedback. I intended this post as a more advanced one and I understand that there’s some ‘jargon’ which make it harder to understand. I’ve written a previous post outlining the Theory of Action (in the context of Agile Software Development), and what is called ‘Model I’/’Unilateral Control Model’ and ‘Model II’/’Mutual Learning Model’.

      I also have a number of references to the Theory of Action by Argyris & Schon on the “Argyris References” Tab of this blog that might be useful.

      re: the ‘cult’ reference. I’m hoping that it’s not a cult (of course that’s not a great test: which cult member would admit they were a cult member?). The details of the ‘Mutual Learning Model’ are freely available and are explicitly anti-cult in my view, due to a focus on goals like ensuring each person has valid data, to make a free and informed choice to which they internally commit. These goals are achieved through advocating your position (and inviting inquiry into it) combined with inquiry into the other person’s point of view in a way that minimises distortion and strives to maximise the public testing of ideas (by relying on relatively observable data).

      Let me know if there are other concepts that might be confusing.

      Benjamin

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