Living and learning

Living and learning

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and he was nearly right. Only nearly? Yes, because much of what does not kill us has no effect on us whatsoever – it simply passes us by. Our life experience has the potential to make us stronger, but only if we capitalise on the opportunities presented. So, a more realistic aphorism would be: what does not kill us has the potential to make us stronger if we take the trouble to learn from that experience.

But much will depend on our understanding of what learning is all about, how the model of learning we adopt conceptualises it. For example, if we take the traditional model of learning as one of gathering facts and figures, filling our heads with information that may or may not be useful at a later date (the ‘banking‘ model of learning that Paulo Freire was so critical of), then that presents us with little scope for learning from life experiences.

What can also hold us back in terms of models of learning is the tendency to see learners as having fixed personalities (or ‘essences’, to use the technical term) – for example, when people say things like ‘it’s my nature, it’s just the way I am’, as if change is not possible. Such a model of learning assumes that the individual remains untouched by their learning, except for perhaps having added a few more bytes of information to their hard disk or giving them the opportunity to practise skills.

An alternative model of learning that can get us away from these limitations is what is known as existential learning, rooted in existentialist philosophy. According to this approach learners are not fixed entities to be topped up with additional information or more well-oiled skills. Learners are people on a life journey, changing in response to the circumstances they find themselves in. We are constantly faced with situations where we have to make decisions, where we have to choose which branch in the road we go down. Those decisions shape not only the direction we go in, but also who we are. That is, we are not fixed entities on a journey, we are that journey; the journey is a central part of our spirituality, our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. For many that sense of spirituality comes from religion, but, whether religious or not, we all have a spiritual path we are following.

Not so long ago any mention of spirituality outside of religion would have been met with muttered barbs of ‘tree hugging’ and being ‘wired to a moonbeam’. But, increasingly now it is being recognised that spirituality is an important part of being human and that we have to get past any reluctance to engage with spiritual matters. Existential learning recognises this.

Existential learning is learning that changes us in some way, that empowers us to do things differently, to see things differently and, importantly, to feel things differently. Existential learning transforms us in some way. As Nietzsche would see it, it makes us stronger.

There is a parallel here with leadership, particularly self-leadership. A leader is not just someone who keeps the organisational wheels turning, but rather transforms the situation to make sure that they are turning in the right direction (following the best path). Self-leadership is about making sure we are clear about where we are going with our work and our lives more broadly (our path) and what decisions we need to make to follow that path and get where we want to be. Existential learning means making the changes we need to in order to be able to get the most out of our journey.

Existential learning is a key part of the Avenue Professional Development Programme:

avenue-prof-development-MASTER-ENGL[1] small

The Invisibility of Grief

I attended a conference once where one of the presenters said that when people undergo a major change in their lives they experience something very similar to grief. ‘Similar?’, I thought to myself. ‘No, it is more than similar, it is identical; it is grief’. Grief is our reaction to loss, not just our reaction to bereavement. This sounds a very straightforward statement to make, and yet I regularly encounter situations involving significant losses other than death where the people involved are not taking account of grief at all – even though I am sure they would do so if a death had occurred.

This is what I mean by the invisibility of grief. There are so many situations in which it is a significant factor and yet will often receive little or no consideration. I have come across social care workers who have been involved in settling older people into a residential setting (when increasing infirmity has necessitated giving up their home) who have given no thought to the grief the person concerned is likely to be experiencing. Similarly I have worked with child care staff who have not considered the grief involved in experiences of child abuse, a phenomenon characterised by many losses at many levels. Thankfully, I have also met many people who are well tuned in to loss and grief issues and respond very supportively and sensitively. However, it is the proportion of caring professionals who do not do so that causes me some degree of consternation.

I am not blaming or criticising such staff. If they have not had training on such issues and/or suitable guidance through supervision, then they cannot be criticised for not being aware of what they are not addressing.

Similar concerns occur in the wider workplace and not just in the caring professions. For example, employees may be given compassionate leave and, in some organisations at least, a very supportive response at a time of bereavement. However, if their loss is not death related, they may receive little or no support – even though losses unconnected with death can often be more impactful than a bereavement. For example, a worker whose spouse has been sent to prison may experience a stronger grief reaction than a worker whose grandparent has died (especially if they were not particularly close to their grandparent).
Kenneth Doka’s work on disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989) has proven influential. A disenfranchised loss is one that is not recognised or socially sanctioned and does not therefore trigger off the type of social support people normal receive at the time of a significant loss. He identified three main forms of disenfranchisement: (i) the relationship is disenfranchised; for example, someone in a secret same-sex relationship – that is, one that is not ‘out’ – whose partner dies may receive little or no support if the person who has died is perceived as a flatmate or a lodger; (ii) the loss itself is disenfranchised; for example, a death by suicide may evoke less support than a less stigmatised cause of death; (iii) the griever is disenfranchised; for example, it is often assumed that people with learning disabilities do not grieve or that older people ‘get used to grief’. Corr (1998) added a fourth form when he made the important point that workplace losses can also be disenfranchised, as so many organisations are not geared up towards dealing with such matters (see Thompson, 2009).

We can also add a fifth form of disenfranchisement, namely losses that are not death related: divorce, homelessness, abuse, redundancy, becoming disabled or chronically sick, being a victim of a crime and/or violence and the myriad other losses that are part and parcel of life. Anything we put our heart into can lead to grief when we lose what we have made that emotional investment in. Grief is therefore a much wider concept than a response to death.

So, in the people professions – whether the caring professions or management and human resource practice across all sectors – we need to be attuned to issues of loss and grief and not fall into the sadly all-too-common trap of missing the significance of grief in situations where no actual death has occurred.

I have worked with many groups over the years (students at universities and practitioners and managers on training courses) where we have looked closely at just how significant a factor grief is in people’s problems – especially where that grief has not been acknowledged and given the attention it deserves. The result every time was a group of people who went away much better prepared for tuning in to loss issues. Such groups were also generally much more aware of how certain apparently inexplicable aspects of the situations they had been dealing with were now much more explicable.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He is the author of Grief and its Challenges (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and has also produced a DVD on working with loss ( His website is at


Corr, C. (1998) ‘Enhancing the Concept of Disenfranchised Grief’, paper presented at the annual meeting of the association for Death Education and Counseling, Chocago, IL, March.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (1989) Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, Lexington, MA, Lexington Books.
Doka, K.J. (ed.) (2002) Disenfranchised Grief: New Directions, Challenges and Strategies for Practice, Champaign, IL, Research Press.
Thompson, N. (2009) Loss, Grief and Trauma in the Workplace, Amityville, NY, Baywood.

Learn about grief with Neil’s book

Influencing organisational culture

‘Essentialism’ is the technical terms for the idea that each us has a fixed nature: we are who we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Despite ample evidence to show that this is a seriously flawed way of thinking, it remains a very common (mis)understanding of human psychology. While it would be foolish not to recognise very strong and lasting patterns of behaviour, though and emotional response in each of us, it would be equally foolish not to recognise that people can and do change.

Such changes can be self-initiated – that is, as a result of an explicit decision made: ‘I will be more patient from now on’; ‘I must cut down on fatty foods as I am worried about my cholesterol levels’; and so on. However, they are often in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in and we may not even notice we have changed, so subtle can the differences be. This is often the case in an organisational setting where the influence of other individuals, of groups and of the organisational culture can be very strong.

I want to now focus on the organisational culture issues as these can be particularly significant. This is because cultures influence us in very powerful but very subtle ways – we slide into commonly accepted norms and patterns, generally without recognising that this process is happening.

This can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For example, some cultures are very negative and are characterised by a degree of defeatism and cynicism, manifestations of low morale. On the other hand, cultures can be very positive influences, encouraging a supportive set of relationships, promoting learning, creativity and innovation and generating a sense of security. This is the hallmark of good teamwork – the sense of shared endeavour that makes people feel that, however challenging the workplace may be, ‘we are in this together’.

This is where leadership comes in. A major challenge for any leader is to be able to influence the culture in a positive direction, to bring about positive changes and to block negative ones. ‘Challenge’ is exactly the right word, as influencing a culture is a very difficult and demanding undertaking. But it is also a challenge that is worth investing time and energy in, as the positive benefits can be immense, while the price we pay for allowing a negative culture to persist is very high indeed.

Managers therefore need to take these issues very seriously and be prepared to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to shape cultures positively.  These can be developed, although not overnight. It involves building on our existing interpersonal skills to develop trust and credibility.

However, in my People Skills book, I make the point that it is not just managers who are leaders – professional staff can and should see themselves as leaders too. So, we all need to be thinking about what influence we can have on the culture around us and not just leave this to managers. For me this is part of self-leadership – the ability to be clear about where we are going with our work, career and life overall and helping to create the circumstances that will get us there plus the commitment to doing so.

Cultures are sets of habits, unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions that develop into shared meanings. If we want to influence the culture in a positive direction, then we need to identify the negative elements and challenge them, while also recognising the positive elements and building on them.

How easy or otherwise it is to influence a culture will vary from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes, it can be a long and difficult journey, but at other times, it can be relatively straightforward – for example, a culture characterised by a lack of communication can easily be changed by team members making a concerted effort to communicate with one another. Cultures are very powerful, but they are not all-powerful. We have a choice, we can either seek to influence our culture or we can resign ourselves to becoming passive victims of that culture, with all the detrimental effects that entails.

Neil Thompson’s latest book is People Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is a follow up to his highly successful People Skills (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and the highly acclaimed The People Solutions Sourcebook (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). His books are available from

Book review: Roots and Wings: A History of Outdoor Education and Outdoor Learning in the UK

Ogilvie, K. C. (2013) Roots and Wings: A History of Outdoor Education and Outdoor Learning in the UK, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing. ISBN 978-1-905541-84-3: £39.95 + £1.50 delivery:

This is a mammoth of a book, with over 800 pages in total. As its title indicates, it has a strong historical focus – and that focus is also very wide, locating outdoor education in the context of wider human history, beginning the story over ten million years ago. As someone who is interested in history, I very much enjoyed that wide sweep and the effective way the history of outdoor education was woven into the picture of human history. However, I fear that those who want to know about the history of outdoor education specifically without much interest in the wider picture will feel unhappy with the page after page of historical detail approach that the author has adopted.

Outdoor learningBut, if you can get past that, there is much of value in this book. It shows how approaches to outdoor learning have changed over time and yet have a strong sense of continuity. It could be argued that you don’t need to know the history of an approach to learning to be able to practise it effectively. However, I would want to argue that having a grasp of the historical context will enrich our understanding and therefore put us in a stronger position to make use of the learning opportunities outdoor education presents.

Fundamental to this book is the recognition that different people learn in different ways. While traditional, classroom-based learning can be very effective in the right circumstances, it is not the only way of promoting learning. Outdoor education focuses on the whole person and recognises that there is much to be learned from activities, particularly those that involve engaging with nature. The author argues convincingly that it is important for children to develop an awareness of, and appreciation for, nature. Much the same can be said of adults, of course, especially those whose fast-paced urban lifestyles can leave them out of touch with the natural world. Perhaps, as a species, we would have more respect for our habitat and pollute it less if we were less disconnected from it.

One of the longstanding criticisms of classroom-based education is that it encourages a narrow, conformist approach to learning and to life more broadly. Outdoor learning, by contrast, has the potential to encourage a broader, more adventurous approach to learning and indeed to how we rise to the challenges our lives throw at us. No one is claiming it is a panacea, but a clear message from this book is that it has much to commend it, much that can be of great value in promoting learning.

This is an important book that documents an important history. It deserves to be widely read by educators of children and adults alike.


Neil Thompson: 
The Avenue Learning Centre:
The Avenue Professional Development Programme:
Russell House Publishing:

The challenge of leadership

The challenge of leadership

I was recently a speaker at a conference on leadership. It is a topic that has interested me for some time. I have been particularly intrigued by the idea of a leader as someone who influences an organisational culture in a positive direction. The conference chair used a phrase that made an impact on me and which I have already started using in my training on these issues: he described a leader as a thermostat not a thermometer – that is, someone who can affect the ‘temperature’ in a team, section or whole organisation, rather than someone who just reflects that temperature.

Where there is a lack of leadership there will be managers and professionals (and yes, indeed, it is not just managers that can and should be leaders) who become passive victims of the culture in which they are operating. Of course, it has to be recognised that organisational cultures can be very powerful influences indeed on not only group and individual behaviour, but also thought patterns and emotional responses. Such influences can be highly positive (empowering, motivating, supportive, nurturing and energising) and can create a strong sense of shared endeavour and high morale, with a great deal of learning going on. However, they can also be highly negative (disempowering, demotivating, unsupportive, macho and draining), resulting in little real sense of teamwork and a culture of low morale that can be quite destructive for all concerned and which can stand in the way of any real learning taking place.

Of course, leaders do not have complete control over the cultures they inhabit – the reality of organisational life is far more complex than that. However, there are ways and means in which leaders can make their presence felt in shaping cultures in a positive direction. Some people make the mistake of assuming that, because cultures are very powerful, they are all-powerful and that there is therefore little that can be done to affect them. This mistaken assumption can be especially prevalent where low morale is to the fore, as low morale tends to promote negativity, defeatism and even cynicism, which then discourages any challenges to that culture.

In reality, cultures are sets of habits, taken-for-granted assumptions and shared meanings, and so much of their force comes from the dead weight of habit. In some circumstances, cultural change can be a long and difficult process, while in others it can be relatively straightforward. For example, where there is a culture characterised by people not communicating with one another, an effective leader could potentially change that culture fairly quickly by making sure that people start communicating with one another. New sets of (more positive) habits can be formed quite quickly at times.

Of course, leadership involves an important set of skills, and those skills need to be underpinned by a degree of confidence, as we will not be able to serve as a positive influence if we lack confidence in our ability to do so. Herein lies a considerable irony. Cultures of low morale – those cultures that cry out most for effective leadership – are precisely the breeding ground for low confidence. So, where leadership is needed most could very well be where it is least likely to be found or to flourish.

So, while leadership has much to offer we should not see it in simplistic terms as some sort of magic solution. There are many challenges involved in taking leadership forward, but it is to be hoped that the benefits of improved leadership are sufficient to spur us to find ways of building on the foundations we already have. With this in mind, one thing we should be aware of is that, as long ago as the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett was making the vitally important point that one of the primary tasks of leadership was to support the development of other leaders – that is, good leadership begets leadership.

People Management, Neil’s latest book, is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan on March 22nd.

Developing a community of learning

In the build up to launching the Avenue Professional Development Programme a few people have asked me what the thinking behind the initiative is. Perhaps it would be helpful if I put it in the context of how my thinking has developed.

For several years I taught students week in week out and the advantage of that was that I was able to link ideas together from one session to the next, respond to any concerns or confusions and help people grow as they took their learning forward over time. The disadvantage was that I was influencing the learning of only a very small proportion of the practitioners who are engaged in professional practice and not influencing managers at all. So, when I became an independent writer, educator and adviser, the situation was reversed. That is, I had the advantage of working with a wide range of practitioners on training courses up and down and was also able to work with managers, but the disadvantage was that I lost that continuity, that ability to be a linking thread and guide for a group of learners. What I gained on the swings I lost on the roundabouts.

However, in developing multimedia learning resources and e-learning facilities for Avenue Media Solutions (, I came to realise that online learning could be a way to get both sets of advantages, to have the swings and the roundabouts. So, the idea for the Avenue Professional Development Programme (APDP) was born. In the past 12 months I have been working towards developing an online facility that will allow me to work with a wide group of learners over a period of time. The idea is that people who sign up to the programme will have access to a range of learning facilities, will be able to interact online with a wide range of other learners and have the benefit of my overall stewardship of the programme. So, participants will get the benefits of being part of an online learning community tutored by a very experienced educator and highly respected author at a price per annum of less than many companies charge for attending just a one-day course. And I will get the benefits of being able to work with a wide community of learners at more than a day or two at a time – a win-win situation all round.

Members of the APDP will: be able to join in discussions with other learners through online forums; have access to a growing library of multimedia learning resources (articles, videos, podcasts, webinars and so on) based largely but not exclusively on my own work; develop an e-portfolio to record and consolidate their learning (ideal for professional registration purposes); make use of a reflective journal; and be part of groups with shared interests and/or aspirations. The major benefit of being part of the APDP is that members will have a focal point for their learning. They can bring issues from their own practice, combine them with issues arising from the learning resources regularly being added to the programme, discuss them with others, reflect on them in their journal and record (and, importantly, consolidate) their learning in their e-portfolio. This will provide a continuity of learning that can be difficult to achieve without some form of structured programme like this.

The technological development for the programme is nearing completion, so we should be able to launch soon, once we have enough members signed up to form a genuine community we will be underway. Full details of the programme are available at:

Learning for life

I have just completed a very busy period where I provided a great deal of training for a number of organisations. Reflecting on the experience what strikes me is the huge difference in attitudes to learning. At one extreme we have the semi-burnt out cynic who seems determined to let their negativity spoil the positive learning environment I have worked hard to create. Thankfully such people are in a small minority. At the other extreme are the people who become fully immersed in the process of learning. They show an enthusiasm for taking on new ideas, reviewing and/or consolidating their existing knowledge and skills and really want training to make a positive difference to practice. They embrace learning opportunities with zeal, put energy into the process and become energised by it. No doubt the differences in attitudes are in large part personal differences, but I am also aware what a difference organisational culture makes. Organisations can have cultures that are supportive of learning (it is recognised that it is dangerous not to keep learning); take no notice of learning (too busy chasing their tails to learn) ; or actively discourage learning (change is seen as threatening). So, how much learning takes place will depend on (i) the organisational culture; and (ii) to what extent individuals allow themselves to be influenced by their culture vs. the extent to which they take ownership of their own learning.

Be tutored online as part of my Avenue Professional Development Programme

I will soon be launching the Avenue Professional Development Programme. The SILVER version will allow members of the people professions to be part of an online learning community, with me as the tutor. The GOLD version will include all the facilities of the SILVER programme, but with the addition of one-to-one e-mentoring with my good self. Find out now how you can be part of this important innovative online learning programme at a surprisingly low price! Download the full-colour brochure here.

Asking the right questions?

I was recently contacted by someone who wanted my advice on asking the right questions in a coaching context. He explained that he worked as a coach and regularly used certain questions to encourage his clients to think about how they can move forward with their work and their learning. He asked me whether I thought they were the ‘right’ questions to ask. Of course, I had to reply by saying that it all depends on the context. What will work in one set of circumstances will not necessarily work in others. I went on to explain that this is what reflective practice is about – having a ‘reflective conversation with the situation’. That is, we have to think carefully about the situation and work out what questions to ask based on what we find. I also  suggested that he should consider going a step further into critically reflective practice – in other words, asking questions that encourage reflection not only on current practices within current parameters, but also on how those parameters could be changed, on how new ways of approaching our work and our learning can be developed by looking at the wider and deeper picture (critical breadth and depth). He didn’t reply to thank me for my comments so I can only assume that wasn’t what he wanted to hear, that he just wanted me to affirm that he was on the right lines – hardly a solid basis for coaching!

To find out more about Neil’s views on critically reflective practice, see the book he co-wrote on the subject:

Taking diversity seriously

A recent survey carried out by HR Magazine found that a high proportion of organisations were claiming to take diversity issues seriously but only 57% had a diversity strategy in place. This reminds me of the early days of anti-discriminatory practice when there was a lot of rhetoric about the importance of tackling discrimination and oppression, but nowhere near as much evidence of concrete steps being taken to promote equality by translating the verbal commitment into actual practice. Tokenism is what it was called in those days, so perhaps that’s what we are seeing today.

Back then an additional problem was that much of the discussion generated more heat than light and led to a lot of people backing off to what they perceived as safer territory to get away from some of the excesses. It is good that we see far less of this these days (although it has not disappeared altogether – see the discussion in my Promoting Equality book –, but what has replaced it as a problem – to a certain extent – is a polite commitment to valuing diversity and promoting equality which does not recognise the complexities and challenges involved. We have certainly moved on in terms of awareness of the issues, but my work in this field leads me to conclude that we still have a long way to go.