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Peter Honey

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Learning from anecdotes


Before Dr Peter Honey delivers his highly-anicipated talks at TrainingZone Live 'It couldn't happen to a trainer', he tells us a story to get us in the mood.
I have always been fond of anecdotes. I find they are memorable accounts of life's incidents which, with the benefit of hindsight, have matured into insightful stories. I still have vivid memories of a story told by a man who had had a heart transplant. It featured the weeks in hospital, prior to his operation, waiting for a suitable donor heart. He was 'in competition' with two other patients and they all became friends in adversity. After a series of hilarious and tragic incidents, he was the lucky one. His two friends died still waiting for a donor.
I'm glad to say I haven't had a heart transplant so, by comparison, my anecdotes pale into insignificance. Or do they? I've got a theory that all anecdotes provide raw material for learning in rather the same way that case studies do. After all, anecdotes are mini case studies drawn from the best source possible – the school of life. Who needs a Harvard professor to write a case study when we are all constantly generating our own? 
"Anecdotes are mini case studies drawn from the best source possible – the school of life."
Armed with this conviction, I have been experimenting with anecdotes. The basic idea is simple; to give a first hand account of an experience and then allow people to pick it over and share their insights. Let me give you an example (you could feel an anecdote coming on couldn't you?). 
I was once hired by an organisation who were interested in running some workshops to help their managers chair meetings more effectively. I asked if I could sit in on some meetings and observe them for myself. They fixed me up with three different meetings, run by three different managers in three different locations. Since I had no opportunity to meet the managers beforehand, I always got to the location early to brief them on my project and reassure them that I would be as unobtrusive as possible and that, despite appearances to the contrary, I was really quite harmless etc. 
All went according to plan until the third meeting. This was chaired by a director who, after half an hour or so reached for one of the many pencils on his desk and thrust it into the jaws of an electric pencil sharpener. It made a whirring noise and he held the pencil there until it disappeared. Three minutes later (I timed it) the director leapt up and started to rant and rave. The participants in the meeting, obviously used to this behaviour, sat quietly, heads down, waiting for the storm to blow over. Eventually the director regained his composure, and the meeting resumed as if nothing had happened.
The same sequence repeated itself a couple more times before the meeting was adjourned for lunch. I had lunch with three of the participants who immediately regaled me with stories about the director – how impossible he was to work for, how moody he was, how unpredictable he was. I made non-committal noises but allowed myself to query whether they were right in claiming that the director was unpredictable. I gave as 'evidence' the fact that when he fed a pencil into the sharpener it was a three minute warning that he was about to go bananas. 
The meeting resumed. After about 15 minutes the director seized a pencil and thrust it into the pencil sharpener. My lunchtime companions gave me meaningful looks and one even winked at me. The director saw this and, without waiting three minutes, demanded an explanation. Feeling very foolish, I confessed that over lunch I had speculated that pencil sharpening was an outward sign of his rising frustration. He looked absolutely livid (the colour drained from everyone else's face, mine included) and told me to stay behind after the meeting. Once everyone had gone, the director closed the door and asked for more feedback. For one hour he lapped it up without ever being defensive or aggressive.
"The important thing is not just telling stories, but teasing out some useful lessons."
I have tried this story out on a number of groups and invited them to explore it for possible learning. Lots of lessons emerge; the worthwhileness of first hand observation to help identify training needs, the foolishness of colluding behind a client's back, the weight specific behavioural evidence carries, the power of timely feedback, the fact that most people (and certainly bullies like this director) are starved of feedback, the lack of any opportunity for follow up, and so on.
I have lots of stories like this one (haven't we all?). The important thing is not just telling stories, but teasing out some useful lessons. As Aldous Huxley said, 'Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him'. 

Dr Peter Honey is a chartered psychologist, founder of Peter Honey Publications Ltd and creator with Dr Alan Mumford of the UK's leading self-assessment learning tool, Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles. See him at TrainingZone live - to book your place click here


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